It’s absurd to lay all the responsibility for a child’s education at the feet of their school. Parents play a huge part in providing children with stimuli and experiences outside the confines of formal education. Yet as a society, we continue to act as though the only way to increase educational standards is to tinker with schools: to change the curricula, to make the school day longer, or introduce phonics tests to see how well young children are learning to read and write.
Since the publication of the landmark Coleman report in 1968, we have known that family background accounts for a large part of the gaps in academic achievement. We know that increasing parents’ interaction with their children’s learning is the best bet we have to improve their education.
It’s what happens in the home and the car, and everywhere else that children are during the 75% of their time when they are not in school, that makes the difference. Yet this information is constantly ignored. Everyone knows parents’ influence is there, but we still don’t know what to do about it.
Outreach from schools
The Welsh government has just published a new toolkit to help schools in the way they engage with parents. It makes the point that what will make a difference to children’s outcomes is not engaging parents with schools (though that might be a necessary first step), but rather engaging parents in the learning of their children.
Schools in England now have to prove to the inspectorate Ofsted that they involve parents effectively – a good and appropriate first step. However, as myself and colleagues have argued before, parent’s involvement with schools, such as attending parents’ evenings, is best when it leads on to involvement with schooling, such as helping with homework.
In a 2007 study, myself and colleagues asked more than 100 teenagers in England what they wanted from their parents and what would support their learning. The answer was clear: moral support. Secondary school students wanted to know that their parents cared for them and that their families valued education. As one student summed up for many others: “If they don’t care about it, why should you?”
If we really want to increase achievement, particularly for our students who struggle the most, then we need to look outside the school gates and start supporting their families as well. This means that schools need to consider their dealings with parents through exactly the same lens as they do their interactions with students: a lens of learning. What will help parents to help their children learn?
Showing you care
I suggest there are six points schools could follow to help support parents, which could increase achievement and narrow the gap between children from different backgrounds.
First, schools can support parents’ early work with children to get good habits established about valuing education. For example, changing the question from “what did you do today?” to “what did you learn today?” is much easier when children are in their early years.
Second, most parents readily read with and to their children, but they could do much more. If children are looking at weights and measures at school, for example, a simple note to this effect from teachers to parents asking them to discuss these ideas when cooking, can make a large difference to the child.
Third, schools should support parents’ active interest in their children’s learning. To do this, schools need to make sure that parents have information and suggestions that are clear and easy to understand and act on. And fourth, teachers can emphasise the importance of parents’ interest: it’s not about parents knowing the answers to homework questions, rather, what’s important is parents caring whether the learning takes place at all.
Reading with a five-year-old is one thing – supporting an A Level student is quite another. So fifth, schools should continue to support parents to have high aspirations and to stay engaged, particularly as children get older.
Underpinning all this, schools need to emphasise the value of learning in the home – this is my sixth point. To acknowledge this, we have to move the debate on from thinking that education and learning only happen in the classroom. Schooling takes place in school, but that is a subset of the much larger and more wide-ranging concept of education. For too long, we’ve seen home and school as dichotomous entities: we need to start seeing them as part of a continuum of learning for every child.