“Poor white British children now come out of our schools with worse qualifications than equally poor children in any other ethnic group”
…said Graham Stuart, the Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee On Wednesday. As the Committee publish their long-awaited review into white working-class under performance, once again the finger is being pointed in the direction of parents.
The Presenting Symptoms: Students from white working-class homes are more likely to play truant; do less homework than any other ethnic group and achieve the worst academic outcomes of any ethnic group.
The relationship between material deprivation and education outcomes is well documented. This week’s findings however look to the resilience factors demonstrated by “some other ethnic groups” which, according to the report, make them “more resilient than white British children to the effects of [such a] status on educational achievement.”
A Need to be Nuanced: How stark is the gap? Whilst there is a clear achievement gap at the end of KS4, no such discrepancy exists at the end of the Primary phase of schooling. The variance between White, Black and Asian students is a mere 6%. The achievement gap between White and Black Caribbean students is even less glaring (only 3%).
Primary Concern is the Secondary Experience: But at Secondary level, for those leaving education, the picture is far clearer. Figures show just 32 per cent of poor white British children obtain five A* to C grades, compared to 42 per cent of Black Caribbean children eligible for free school meals and 61 per cent of disadvantaged Indian children.
The Solution: It is easy to highlight the problematic and far too often we spend hours defining and redefining the issues as they are perceived. What is harder still, is the need to outline public policy that tackles such concerns, engages with the key underlying issues and promotes progress. In the desire to combat truancy, encourage work in the home and boost academic attainment, arguments become reductionist and the solutions not so much ill-suited to a problem as ready made to exasperate the very issue they seek to address. My position is clear:
Longer hours are not the answer in and of themselves – OECD research, in comparing international statistics of time spent in school, draws out the quality verses quantity paradigm. The variance across countries is significant and what is certain is that there is an inverse relationship, in many instances, between time spent in school and success. Countries who find themselves lower down in the PISA tables: Greece, Italy and Portugal encourage a greater amounts of time in class. Compared to Finland (600 hours a year and in the top five performing education systems internationally) a country like Italy insists on nearly double the amount of contact time. The report concludes that:
“The current trend towards longer school days presents an opportunity for schools to provide space and time for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to complete their homework, which may particularly benefit white working class children.”
More homework is not the answer either: if research tells us that there is no such correlation between work completed outside of the classroom and enhanced academic performance, providing space for it seems futile. What seems obvious, however, that such methods would seek to replicate the environment of quality family relationships found in the homes of those who do succeed. We either need to engage parents or empower them; what we should not do is seek to replace them or discourage them. Yet policy makers are calling for parents to face “stronger sanctions” with headteachers given powers to fine parents who fail to support their children’s education.
Support not sanctions the answer: Save the Children noted in a study, only last year, the strong desires of parents to engage with their children and the student’s schooling. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said fining parents could “very easily tear apart what can often be a fragile relationship between the school and the parent or carer and certainly will not benefit the child”. And that’s the heart of it…the relationship between the home and the school and the parents and their children. What the Save the Children study revealed was those parents with Level 2 qualifications or below hadn’t the capacity to engage in their children’s education. Far from being disinterested, school work often brings back highly emotive and negative memories of their education experience and highlights inadequacies not ineffectiveness. Our approach at the Relational Schools Project is different:
We support parents in their desire to be involved
We partner with schools and other organisations to implement an intervention programme designed to help children and parents improve their skills in elements such as reading, writing or mathematics whilst encouraging stronger bonds between:
- parents and their child;
- parents and their child’s school;
- parents and the wider community.
As a result of weekly sessions where children and parents take part in structured activities together, we examine the extent to which relationships have strengthened. For us, merely educating the young, without addressing the illiteracy in adults, can reinforce tensions and a sense of imbalance in the relationship; the more literate a child becomes the more, perhaps, a parent feels inadequate in their desire to help. We believe that empowering parents is as much about educating mums and dads as it is modelling quality first relationships.
A “Stern” reminder:
Julian Stern reminds us that, “Parents are not cheap substitutes for teachers; teachers are, at best, quite expensive substitutes for parents”. Surely the most powerful engagement is when all work together.