Parents are the vital resource to better our schools

6th May 2011 at 01:00

Since the dreadful Pisa results for Wales in December, the focus of the policy response has been to improve our schools, to do something about the "systemic failure", to use Leighton Andrews' brutal words.

This led to two speeches by the education minister in February - and 20 policy proposals. The focus on schools is right: it must be our educational system that propelled us down the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables between the 2007 and 2010 results, because the social conditions of pupils in Wales will not have changed much during that time.

But if we really want to help the schools of Wales, maybe we should now also intervene with the parents. There is some official reluctance to talk about the influence of parents - often this reflects the rightful unease that "social disadvantage" has been used as one of our standard Welsh excuses for failure. Its influence is often overstated as if schools can do nothing about it, when we know that there are schools in Wales with identically disadvantaged catchment areas but with a 30 percentage-point difference in their proportions of pupils getting five or more high grade GCSE passes.

Nor is it social disadvantage that is responsible for the huge variation within our secondary schools' different subject departments - this reflects the lack of organisational capacity and leadership.

So, the current emphasis on how schools can succeed despite parents is understandable but may have blinded us to the possibilities if we got parents on board to help our schools. The Pisa test results do, after all, reflect the influence of schools and our parents. Every study ever done tells us that parents and family background matter at least as much as school quality. Given this, what might we do?

First, we need to make something out of our national commitment to "community schools". This concept in Wales has been an empty phrase, a superficial sound bite that reflects little real content. Mostly, it has been seen as shared use - putting services together on one site. But that does little to help improve results.

We could seek to involve the community more, by providing more performance data, by doing more outreach, by providing parents with more information electronically and by giving more guidance.

But - second - we could go further and follow the leads of some of the great black charter schools in the US and some of the high-performing academies in places such as London to try to organise the lives of parents better in terms of how they bring up their children. Parents in these kinds of deprived catchment areas can be encouraged to do everything for their children that a middle-class home would do.

These schools have found that more guidance and help is not resented or rejected by parents and caregivers. In an uncertain and difficult world, it is actually much appreciated. The guidance comes basically as print or online manuals that describe all aspects of children's needs and cover multiple areas.

For example, there is much evidence that the long summer holiday means that children forget much of what they have learnt in the summer term and that their reading skills can decline by three to six months. Having information about worthwhile, semi-educational resources and about visits, trips and schemes can help.

There is also much evidence that physical fitness affects intellectual fitness and that physical exercise routines can help with learning problems. These programmes only need two 15-minute sessions a day and can be easily explained to parents.

Similarly with diet - parents can be informed on the need for adequate water, the protective effects of foods such as nuts and, of course, fish oils. Children's fish consumption in the UK has declined by two-thirds since the 1950s. Also available are brain-training games and systems.

In short, schools and government could prepare children to be "school ready". They could help develop "good enough" parenting. They could take the school into the homes of children. Homes could be semi-schools.

In Wales, we do some of these things - but, like everything else, we do it partially and variably. It should be possible to encourage parents to help our schools more while not permitting parental background to be used as an excuse. Rather than concentrating only upon our schools, isn't it time to help our parents help us, too?

David Reynolds is professor of educational effectiveness at Southampton University and senior policy adviser in DCELLS, Welsh Assembly Government.

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