Official: they buck you up, your mum and dad

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Margaret Lochrie on the good that many parents do

Philip Larkin's famous line about the damage parents do to their children meditates on the tendency for destructive patterns of behaviour to be passed on in families. It is now the inspiration for a handbook by the psychologist, Oliver James, They f*** you up: How to survive family life.

The past has an unremitting grip on the next generation, shaping the future and limiting possibility. We can all recognise an element of our own families in those lines, but what about the positives?

Family life as a potentially benign environment for educational achievement is the subject of a report by Professor Charles Desforges of Exeter University with Alberto Abouchaar of Universidad Nacional de Colombia, published by the Department for Education and Skills. The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievements and adjustment is a comprehensive study of research on parental involvement in education in the UK and elsewhere. Its most important finding is that spontaneous parental involvement, through "good at-home parenting", has a major effect on children's achievement. In the primary age range, its impact is so significant it overshadows the difference in quality of school.

The UK government is, of course, committed to engaging parents in their children's education - as school governors and classroom assistants, through home-school agreements and other links. Interestingly, Desforges finds less evidence for the value of this compared with the huge impact of the family. In-school involvement may be good for parents or may help schools to link better with their communities, but has not yet been found to make a sufficient contribution to children's attainment.

The authors find that good parenting requires more than reading to children, or helping with homework. These activities are important, but it is the relationships within the home and support for personal aspiration which are key. The child is also an active player; good school results reinforce parental interest. To a lesser extent, the local community and peer group activities have a part to play.

Unsurprisingly, the authors find that virtuous circles involving the child, family, school and community is distributed inconsistently across social class divides. Low self-esteem or a negative experience of their own education makes it harder for some parents to engage productively with their children's schools.

Single-parent status has a negative impact on involvement, perhaps because of lack of time, and many working-class parents are put off by teachers who they perceive to be judging them by middle-class values. Poorer families may also feel less well-equipped for parent-teacher exchanges, the authors suggest.

The report also focuses on the large and diverse body of adult and community learning, family learning and parenting programmes which have been developed, often ad hoc, by local authorities, schools and voluntary bodies. The researchers felt such schemes provided a template for increasing parental involvement, particularly in "hard-to-reach" areas.

This report has much to say to policy-makers, teachers and parents.

Desforges believes that through the development of much broader connections between schools and their communities, "stellar advances" could be made not just in pupil achievements but in combating the type of educational disadvantage that passes from one generation to the next.

We need to put the evidence into practice.

The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievements and adjustment is available from DfES Publications, 0845 6022260 or at

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