How much should parents get involved in kids’ education? I’m an expert, and a dad, and even I’m confused | Lee Elliot Major
Nothing prepares you for the educational rollercoaster ride of parenthood. I’ve digested thousands of education studies and advised teachers across the world. Yet after two decades of being a dad I’m still unsure of what might be best for our children.
Like most parents, we’ve been through it all: stressful Sundays filling in the blanks of our children’s reading records; evenings spent urging them to complete their homework; paying subs for a junior football team that over several seasons never managed to win a single game.
Parents seem to be spending more time and money on education activities, endlessly ferrying their children to music lessons and sports training; frog-marching them to visits of museums and galleries; taking holidays to enrich them in different cultures and enhance their personal CVs. Yet despite mounting pressures, there is little advice to guide parents on what is important when it comes to education.
The latest research only adds to our confusion. A new study suggests that helping children with their maths or reading to them outside school has hardly any impact at all. More categorically, it finds that playing music or sports with your children does nothing for their performance at school. As with many such studies, it is answering the wrong exam question.
A parent’s own circumstances have a profound impact on children’s prospects. Children with non-graduate parents are far less likely to grow up in two-parent homes and family-owned homes than children with graduate parents. Children of the richest households, meanwhile, are twice as likely to benefit from private tutoring than children from the poorest households.
In my research, I have found that simple habits in the home can make life-defining differences. Sitting down with a book with a child each day just for 20 minutes, for example, can transform their learning. Regular routines (meal, bath, bedtime) matter, as well as making children school-ready (ensuring they get enough food and sleep to learn). If you want to help your children with their revision, then quiz them: it’s the most effective technique for remembering things.
Arts and sports also have huge educational value in themselves. They help to improve confidence, self-esteem and wellbeing, as well as social and leadership skills. It’s paramount that parents promote them, given an increasingly emaciated school curriculum is squeezing out music, art and sport. In my view, children should devote as much time to art and sport as core academic study.
The problem is the widening divide between parents who are able to support their children’s education outside school, and those who are not. This chasm has long existed, but the Covid pandemic has exacerbated our 21st-century parenting gap. In the wake of school closures, surveys found that some parents were increasingly engaged with their children’s learning; while others were not. In an increasingly polarised world outside schools, the work of American sociologist Annette Lareau seems ever more relevant. Lareau characterised the sharp-elbowed activities of middle-class parents as “concerted cultivation”, involving their children in structured cultural activities and discussions over the dinner table. In contrast, working-class parents practised “natural growth parenting” – a hands-off approach to schooling.
As any teacher will tell you these are generalisations: parental styles vary among parents of all social classes. But we need to be wary of slipping into a deficit mindset, blaming parents for not keeping up with the Joneses on all these extracurricular efforts. When parents are juggling several precarious jobs to pay the bills, or have limited knowledge of how the education system works, they may not have the time or resources to support their children in the most beneficial ways. Indeed in the post – pandemic era, even the basic rights for children – adequate food, heating, clothing, the ability to travel to school and the space for study – have been eroded.
What is critical to understand if we are to tackle education disparities is that Lareau’s “cultivated” children are primed to succeed in school environments, and encouraged to seek feedback from their teacher if they don’t understand something. Other children lose out.
In my work with school leaders we explore ways of forming non-hierarchical, mutually respective relationships with all parents. All schools should publish parent partnership plans, made available to the whole school community, which would demonstrate what schools are doing to empower all parents to help develop habits in the home learning environment. This “parent promise” would be a win-win strategy for teachers, as children would be more likely to attend school and better prepared to learn in classrooms. Teachers should also be given guidance on how to work with parents.
Until we bridge this divide, I’m afraid that for many parents one of our most important jobs will remain a hit and miss affair. Education is much more than academic grades.