Why it’s important to know your child’s friends at school (and their parents)

By Andreas Schleicher

Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

We are all born with what the political scientist Robert Putnam calls “bonding social capital” – a sense of belonging to our family or other people with shared cultural norms. But it requires deliberate and continuous efforts to create the kind of “bridging social capital” through which we can share experiences among diverse groups, and expand our sphere of trust to include strangers. Societies that value bridging social capital and pluralism have generally been more innovative and productive because they can draw on the best talent from anywhere, build on multiple perspectives, and nurture creativity and innovation. This may hold for schools, too.

School offers opportunities to build bridging social capital because for many children, it is the first place where they experience diverse communities. But there is more to this. New analyses from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that in schools where parents know their children’s friends and their families, students do better in school, have more positive attitudes toward collaboration, and feel happier and safer at school. Parents often establish fruitful relationships with teachers, students and other parents at their child’s school. In doing so, they might gain new friends and help their child’s academic career; and they may also contribute to the common good of the school – by reinforcing the norms of behaviour, spreading important information, generating trust and/or connecting the school with the wider community.

Across countries with available data, parents reported that they know about five of their child’s school friends, on average, and four parents of their child’s friends. Parents in Georgia, Ireland and Spain knew the most of both groups, while parents in Hong Kong (China), Korea and Macao (China) knew the fewest. Mingling with members of the school community may come more naturally to parents in some countries than in others, but there are other factors at work.

In Spain, for instance, 15-year-old students typically switch school premises just once – at around age 12 – while in France they do so three times: around the age of 6, 11 and 15. Compared to their French counterparts, then, Spanish students and their parents have greater opportunities to build stable relationships – if only because making friends takes time. Parents’ involvement in school-related activities may influence their familiarity with other parents at school, as well. The data also show that in most countries, the parents of children attending socio-economically advantaged schools knew more of their child’s school friends and other parents than parents whose children attend disadvantaged schools. This socio-economic gap was particularly large in school systems where parents reported having fewer acquaintances at school.

It’s worth seizing the opportunities that schools provide to build social relationships, rather than leaving them to chance.

Importantly, PISA data suggest that students may benefit when their parents know their friends and their friends’ parents. While PISA cannot prove cause and effect, results show that, on average across countries, 15-year-old students scored higher in collaborative problem solving, and valued relationships and teamwork more, when their parents knew more of their friends and their friends’ parents. This correlation holds even after accounting for the socio-economic profile of students and schools.

This may also help counter bullying at school. A bully might think twice before threatening another student if they believe that their parents know each other. Bullied children may also feel safer if their parents have relationships with other parents and school staff. More important, setting and enforcing consistent norms to address bullying will be easier when parents know each other and their child’s friends. So perhaps not surprisingly, PISA data show that, on average across countries with available data, students whose parents know more of their friends’ parents were less likely to face bullying – especially relational types of bullying – even after accounting for socio-economic status.

All this suggests that it’s worth seizing the opportunities that schools provide to build social relationships, rather than leaving them to chance. Although the climate and social fabric of a given school is hard to define, every visitor can identify a positive school atmosphere at first sight. The state of a school’s facilities, the tone of conversations in corridors, the way a school welcomes and engages with parents, the enthusiasm of school staff and the way students play during breaks – these are all signs of a positive climate that every visitor can read. All students appreciate a school environment where bullying is rare, making friends is relatively simple, and establishing genuine and respectful relationships with teachers is the norm.

This becomes the norm when school leaders and teachers give it due attention. Getting parents to know each other better, whether through organizing parties and conferences or creating opportunities for them to get involved in school activities, can contribute to a positive school climate and benefit learning outcomes. Strengthening relationships among parents in disadvantaged schools, who would most benefit from social connections, will redouble advantages to their children and the school.

This may all seem rather intuitive, but PISA data suggest that it is not enough – and that more needs to be done to more firmly build bridging social capital into the culture of our schools.

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