Home truths

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Parents are a child's first teachers and the Government must do more to help them in this vital role, says Titus Alexander.

A fatal flaw lies at the heart of the Government's White Paper which could undermine its plans to prepare people for the future. The flaw is the family, or rather the Government's failure to realise fully the importance of families for learning.

The White Paper recognises parents as a child's first teachers. David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, talks passionately about family learning. Yet the proposals offer little support. What we need is a conceptual shift to recognise families as the foundation phase of education.

About half of our learning ability develops by the age of four, as our neural pathways are set in those vital early years.

Families are the largest welfare service, caring for children, the sick and older people. They are our largest leisure service and the first court, teaching everyday ethics, resolving disputes, judging and punishing.

Families are an essential workplace. Unpaid and uncounted, the economy would collapse without the work of parents, particularly women. Families are also political units, ruled by anarchy, democracy, dictatorship, matriarchy or other unnamed systems. Parents are the leaders and educators in this multi-layered microcosm, preparing their children for the demands of running their own microscosm in turn.

Learning at home is often the most powerful education people experience. For most it will be "good enough". But many people struggle to unlearn damaging early lessons through therapy, the courts or the muddle of an unhappy life. More than six million people suffer from mental disorders at any one time. Much of this can be linked to experiences in the family.

As the pace of change accelerates and society becomes increasingly complex, "good enough" may not be sufficient for children growing up in the 21st century.

We must turn round the way public services work. Parents must be seen as the lead agency in the care and education of children. This won't be easy. Many parents have effectively been taught that they are powerless and that education, health and other concerns are the preserve of professionals.

When professionals talk about partnerships with parents, they usually mean getting their support as helpers, fund-raisers and supporters - but not as educators.

Children spend less than 15 per cent of their waking time in school between birth and 16. Parents are responsible the rest of the time. Their decisions about childminders, television, reading and pre-school provision, as well as their encouragement for learning and involvement with school, have a big influence on attainment.

While some homes now have access to vast amounts of knowledge through books, the Internet, multimedia and television, many children have neither books nor encouragement to learn at home. School does make a difference, but parents enable children to make the most of their time there.

However, there is a shift in attitudes among professionals as well as parents. New partnerships are being created between parents and other agencies throughout the country. David Blunkett's education Bill could transform aspirations and achievement by building on these local initiatives to create a flexible national framework to support families as the foundation phase of education. This must involve strengthening and supporting voluntary schemes, in partnership with statutory agencies, not a takeover by the state.

Three essential steps towards a national framework are a campaign for family learning, co-ordinated policies at all levels, and partnerships with parents through early excellence centres and schools.

A campaign for family learning could draw on the last government's experience with On the Move, an adult literacy campaign involving television, voluntary organisations and education institutions backed by a small national team - now the Basic Skills Agency.

Carlton Television's parenting weeks and the BBC's family literacy campaign last year show how television can play a powerful role in helping parents.

The White Paper's commitment to integrated early-years education, childcare and primary education through early-years forums is welcome. But all this must develop in partnership with families, parenting education forums and early-years networks, many of which have struggled with little official support for many years.

Co-ordination at a local level also needs to be matched by policy coherence at national level, particularly between the public services and economic policy.

Early excellence centres have the potential to support learning within families, but the Government should make sure every neighbourhood has an early excellence centre with parenting education for everyone who wants it. Local links with health visitors, childminders, libraries and others who work with families can encourage learning from birth, through education visitors and projects such as Bookstart in Birmingham.

Schools also need to treat parents as equal partners, who need information, training and support like any other educators. Many local authorities - Manchester, Newham or Liverpool - already help schools to work with parents. The Department for Education and Employment could build on this experience by: * spreading good practice about forming partnership with parents; * including parent partnerships as a theme in initial teacher training - and funding it; * requiring schools to develop policies for working with parents; * giving schools the money to make sure staff have the time for home-school liaison.

This is an ambitious programme. Yet investing relatively little money could yield continuous growth in achievement over the long term. A television campaign for family learning would cost about Pounds 6 million. Making parenting education available to all who want it could cost almost Pounds 200m. The equivalent of one family learning support worker for every primary school could cost Pounds 1 billion.

All of this is less than the increase in spending on post-school education under the Conservatives. It does not all have to come from taxes, but the Government must take a lead. Investing in parents as educators will stimulate a lifelong involvement in education that will cascade down the generations.

Titus Alexander is a freelance education adviser, a member of the National Home-school Development Group and the Parenting Education Forum and an author

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