Families hold the key;Platform;Opinion

12th February 1999 at 00:00
The Government will not raise school standards unless it takes the needs of our most vulnerable children into account, says Masud Hoghughi

The Government has launched an unprecedented array of initiatives to raise educational standards. Through "naming and shaming", Sure Start and homework clubs, ministers are making a concerted effort to improve schools.

Their approach is fundamentally flawed, however, concentrating as it does primarily on the mechanistic aspects of school input and ignoring the condition of pupils whose endemic disadvantages consign them to social exclusion.

Educational achievement depends on two factors: the disposition and potential of students; and the quality of education they receive. Successive governments have concentrated on teachers, curricula and school organisation to improve achievement. But it is questionable whether the results have justified the enormous disruption and expense involved.

The days of berating teachers for poor performance are over and the Government now recognises that teacher morale and competence are relevant to raising standards. But its approach, unfortunately, remains top-down and mechanistic.

The Government appears to think that to raise standards one simply has to hone the curriculum, identify priorities, and enforce them with an inspection regime that inspires as much fear as it does improvement. And recent surveys by the Office for Standards in Education and teachers' unions have shown that many staff find inspections stressful and a waste of time. These are probably the very people who work in our poorer, marginal schools. If the Government were to heed even elementary psychological imperatives, it would see that inducing fear is not a good way of changing behaviour.

If struggling schools and teachers are to do better, it is crucial that their hopes and sense of self-worth be raised. What is done to teachers is, in turn, what they do to their pupils. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that teachers don't make much impact on those disaffected pupils who are drifting to the margins of society.

These children, roughly 15 per cent of pupils, typically come from families beset by poor health; unemployment; distress caused by poverty; poor relationships; predatory neighbourhoods and weak community ties; and acceptance of antisocial behaviour as a way of life. Crucially, parents in these families often suffer from poor mental health, manifested in anxiety, depression and sometimes mental illness.

Such families are unable to provide "good enough parenting". Their children do not receive adequate physical, emotional and social nurture or protection from harm. They are brought up without sensitive, internally-controlled behavioural standards, and so they acquire little idea of their own potential and howto fulfil it. These families do not have the motivation, resources or opportunities to help their children benefit from schooling.

We have long known that parental attitudes to schooling are the most potent factors in children's achievement. Exam results are as much evidence of parental support as they are of school efforts, and the best schools work hard to maintain high levels of parental involvement. Countries with the highest standards are those where family relationships are strongest, and where children's educational achievement is tied up with family and social pride.

The majority of children do receive parental support, but there is much to be done before the parents of disadvantaged pupils will adopt a positive attitude towards schools and educational achievement. A good starting point would be to acknowledge the stresses affecting their mental health and parenting capacity.

Schools must recognise that getting parents on their side is not a luxury, but a necessity - and not the job of a social worker or a psychologist, but their own. This means treating parents with particular care to raise their sense of self-worth, gently creating shared expectations and making it worth their while to help manage their disaffected, poorly-achieving children.

The Government must realise that without schools putting in as much effort in this area as they do into the mechanics of curriculum delivery, there is little chance of significant and sustainable improvement in these pupils' standards. Without it, an even greater gap is likely to appear between the disadvantaged and the rest.

The Department for Education and Employment should join up its own thinking by carrying through the parent-focused Sure Start strategy for children under the age of three to the early years of schooling and beyond, with something similar for pupils who are in secondary education.

It should initiate school-based primary mental health programmes, shown to be highly cost-effective in reducing pupils' difficulties. As child and adolescent mental health is a priority for the new Health Improvement Plans, it should be possible to provide such help for children and families locally.

Finally, the Government must re-think its approach to teachers and schools from the present top-down, threat-based programme to one that is positively participative, though rigorous and demanding.

A civilised society ought to realise that it is more sustainable and productive to motivate professionals positively than to add anxiety to what are already onerous and demanding jobs.

Masud Hoghughi is professor of parenting and child development at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle

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