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Owen Hathway - Education begins at Home

Owen Hathaway1Often overlooked when examining what impacts children’s education is the role of parents and guardians. It’s entirely natural to focus on teachers when it comes to attainment. These individuals have been specifically trained to support learners’ education. Teachers show the dedication required to secure qualifications, to undertake inductions, and are there day in day out working with pupils. However, what we forget is that children spend the vast majority of their time outside the classroom.

Even ignoring school holidays, during term-time children are still away from school longer than they are in it. This is despite the fact that Wales has some of the longest school days in Europe, some of the shortest school holidays and fewest public holidays anywhere in the world. This is why the future of the ‘Donaldson’ curriculum is so focused on developing the person as ‘healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society’ and not just the product of a narrow education system.

It’s clear that supporting educational attainment outside a school setting is crucial to seeing improvement within it. The support pupils have at home cannot be underestimated. We know the most successful schools have been able to foster positive relationships with their communities. There is a sense of ownership for school success that permeates beyond the school gates and parents are invested in a joint approach with teachers to develop the knowledge, skills and appetite for learning in their children and young people.

In April 2014 the Welsh Government launched its ‘Education begins at Home’ initiative, designed to engage parents in their children’s education. From keeping regular bedtimes, asking about school and reading with their children, the Welsh Government sought to give practical advice to parents that can have a surprisingly wide ranging impact. To some this may be seen as a ‘nanny state’ approach, but we really do need parents to recognise how important it is to focus on education extending beyond the school setting, into areas where it is perhaps not as explicitly obvious, such as a good night’s sleep.

What impact this initiative has had is difficult to quantify. I would also suggest the Welsh Government should promote it further with a renewed sense of purpose. However, that such a programme does exist shows the Welsh Government are mindful of what all teachers know already, that unless we make the classroom and home an interchangeable learning environment we are only delivering on a part of a pupils potential.

A 2014 study, conducted jointly by Brown and Harvard universities, looked at the impact messages from teachers to parents can have, and by default highlighted the impact parental engagement can have.

The study consisted of three groups of pupils. Parents of the first group received no messages about their child’s performance. The second group had messages which were solely positive. The third received constructive criticism, or ‘improvement information.’

The main finding of the survey was where parents received feedback, irrespective of its nature; there was a substantial increased probability of pupils passing their courses. The comparison with the group that received no feedback was that there ended up being a 41% decrease in students failing to earn credit.

Interestingly, those pupils whose parents received ‘improvement information’ had more effective results than those who simply had the positive feedback. We can therefore determine that not only is feedback to parents essential to attainment but that the nature of that feedback is significant.

Research shows differences in parental involvement have a much bigger impact on achievement than differences associated with the effects of school in the primary age range. What’s more, these impacts are long lasting. Parental involvement continues to have a significant effect as children grow up, although for older pupils it is more important in terms of ensuring pupils remain in education than in measurable academic outcomes.

It is also noteworthy that success through parental involvement is not confined to one social group. The scale of the impact of parental involvement is evident across all social classes’ ethnic groups. Building strong teacher-parent relationships therefore is a way to not only improve attainment within our education system, but a way of doing it that supports pupils right across socio-economic, ethnic and cultural lines.

Community engagement is critical and the best schools are at the top of their game because they have a cohort of parents who share a vision. This is especially important as we look at initiatives such as ‘Schools Challenge Cymru.’ The success of the model it is based on, ‘London Challenge,’ was certainly attributed, in part at least, to parental engagement. As Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol argues in his report on the subject, “London has a right to be pleased with itself in terms of the excellent GCSE performance of its pupils. The argument here is that the basis for that success lies more with pupils and parents than it does with policy-makers.”

This does raise some concerns about policy areas that threaten the parent-school relationship. We know the controversial school banding initiative created a lot of problems as it turned parents against schools. It was one of the fundamental reasons that policy was a failure. Equally, we have to question if truancy fines, which may lead to some short-term gains, could in the longer-term threaten that parent-teacher dialogue.

Teachers can take a child only so far, often they secure the best qualifications against all the other factors in their lives, but as a rule if there is no wider network of support it makes it extremely difficult to ensure potential is reached.

We must support teachers to further develop their capabilities and gain access to training wherever possible. Ensuring we have the most qualified and motivated teachers should be a fundamental objective for any Welsh Government. Equally, we must also examine where improvements can be made to resources and facilities as well as looking at policy changes that empower the profession. However, when all is said and done, we cannot escape the fact children spend most of their time outside school. Not only then must we give thought to parental input but also to the wider socio-economic issues in our community that impact on the ability to secure the best outcomes for all. Failing to tackling those external factors will render any improvements at school level negligible. This means getting to grips with the challenges of poverty as a priority.

Ultimately, we want to foster an education system that allows teachers and parents to engage positively with one another; where there’s a clear focus not only on providing feedback but in shaping how, when, where and why that feedback takes place; where there is a recognised benefit for those interactions and where there is a shared approach and a shared responsibility for a schools success. If that is achieved there is no capping the limit of our potential.

Owen Hathway

Owen Hathway is the Wales Policy Officer at the National Union of Teachers. A frequent media contributor to the education debate in Wales, Owen took up the post in August 2011 having previously worked in a variety of communication and research roles for Plaid Cymru – The party of Wales. This included the role of Head of Communications for the party at the National Assembly for Wales. A graduate of the Aberystwyth University politics department, Owen has also studied towards qualifications with the London School of Journalism; the Chartered Institute of Marketing, where he is a Chartered Marketer; The Chartered Management Institute and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Owen is particularly interested in the impact of community co-operation in educational attainment, and how empowering the education profession can be the lead driver in economic and social performance.