To help 'failing' pupils, focus more closely on parenting

19th December 2008 at 00:00

During the early 1980s, the School Differences Research Group, in which I played a part, produced research results showing that schools with similar catchment areas differed greatly in the success with which they tackled issues such as truancy, bullying and classroom behaviour, often with equally large differences in exam results and general pupil outcomes.

It was clear that in-school factors were at work which were relatively independent of pupils' background and the community issues that they brought with them. Our work led to positive changes in school organisation, ethos and leadership, as well as other improvements ranging from behaviour support and additional support for learning to anti-bullying policies and circle time.

Yet, many children still "fail". Schools are awash with change, many are pushing for more support in these areas and are bursting with inter-agency co-operation. But there is only so much that a large institution of learning can do. I feel we are approaching saturation point and that, to go further, we must look beyond the school.

If we are going to improve the outcomes further for a substantial minority of pupils, we are going to have to support parenting far more than we do now.

While differences still exist between schools that may be expected to produce similar results, the differences between parenting inputs within schools can be extreme, and the differences in outcomes between these children equally so.

Simple-minded, reactionary opposition, of the "nanny-state" variety, to support for parenting must be rejected, in the same way as simple-minded criticism of "failing schools". Although the "parents know best" lobby has to be tackled with more care, it became clear to me, when I was working latterly as a psychologist in the central belt, that changes in parenting practice were of the essence, if there was to be progress in children's learning and behaviour.

It cannot be assumed that all parents and carers are able to give their children adequate input and support to see them through their school days with acceptable success. Many parents have lost confidence in their ability to control early on in the primary years, and others have such overwhelming difficulties that they are unable to give their children even basic levels of control and structure.

From the most advanced work on molecular genetics to daily experience at the breakfast club, the evidence is that parenting should be the focus of policy formulation in child development and education.

"Equal opportunity" is an inadequate aim if it is focused narrowly on schools themselves. Schools and children will continue to fail unless we give greater thought to "home" differences. I cannot think of a more pressing issue at this time.

Bill Badger is a former educational psychologist.

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