Schooling Mum

The UK government's campaign to make parents learn with their children is patronising, illiterate and dumb.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

‘The role of parents can be more important than that of the teacher’, intoned Margaret Hodge, minister for children, young people and families, yesterday, marking the start of the UK’s annual Parents Week (or should that be Parents’ Week?). ‘We would not be carrying out our public duties properly, if we were to ignore the clear evidence that good parenting is vital to improving children’s life chances.’ (1)

Well, it’s one solution to the teacher recruitment crisis: make education, like everything else, the responsibility of parents, and then you don’t need teachers at all. Except, that is, to keep an eye on the parents. One wonders how long it will be until the requirements of good parenting extend to going to school with your children, and learning beside them in class. One month, maybe two?

The UK government’s attempt to collapse the distinction between parenting and teaching is not entirely new. Parents will already be familiar with the exhortations to help their children with their homework and SATs revision, and the reams of official advice on the need to read to your child, talk to your child, buy appropriate educational toys for your child (as if you didn’t know already). Parents may well also be frustrated by the fact that, while they teach fractions and sentences in the evening, children spend their school day being ‘taught’ about sex, relationships and all manner of other life experiences.

But the ‘range of new resources to provide parents with support and information’ launched by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) formalises this view of the proper parent-teacher. And you don’t have to be a professor of child development to work out that it has far more to do with the government teaching parents a lesson than it has to do with producing better-educated kids.

The government claims that this campaign is an example of evidence-based policy. ‘New research’ published by DfES at the start of Parents [sic] Week found that ‘children aged three to five whose parents participated in their early education through the Peers Early Education Partnership (PEEP) achieved systematically five percentage points more in language comprehension than those who didn’t. Similarly their scores on numbers were higher by 7.67 percentage points’. This, claims the DfES, supports other evidence ‘which shows that good parenting in the home can make over a 10 percent difference to children’s outcomes at school’ (2).

There is, of course, a commonsense truth to the idea that children whose parents help them with reading and counting will learn faster in these areas – although the government’s desire to measure such improvement down to the last percentage point is typically bizarre. But for all its educational pretensions, this campaign is motivated less by a desire to raise literacy levels among children than by a concern to inculcate good habits in their parents. While what should be schoolwork is sent home, parents are sent back to school.

Among the new resources unveiled by the DfES on Monday, there is (another) new website: Parent Centre, which is ‘here to offer you support, information and advice about your child’s learning and the English education system’ (3). You can learn all about what your child is supposed to be doing at his age, and at ‘breaktime’ you can take part in an online poll about school bullying policy, or similar. The government has updated the ‘colourful and popular Learning Journey Guides to the curriculum’, which contain ‘fun and easy tips about how parents can support their children with their learning’. Sure Start, the government’s flagship childcare/parenting classes scheme for poor people, is now funding ‘Bookstart’ – which involves health visitors and librarians distributing ‘a pack including high quality baby books to all new parents’.

‘Colourful’? ‘Fun’? ‘Easy’? This kind of language is a stark reminder of how the government sees parents – not as responsible adults who can be trusted to read to their kids, but as intellectually challenged children who would benefit from learning alongside their offspring. Education is stripped of its formal content, and presented as a means to an end – the end being, not a love of books or even basic literacy, but social inclusion.

Parents can help with homework, but it is schooling that teaches children to read. The government knows this – it has institutionalised the dreaded national literacy and numeracy hours in schools, and is obsessive about forcing schools to meet targets in these areas. There is a separate discussion to be had about the quality of school teaching, the limitations of the curriculum, and why this focus on the basics is damaging from an educational point of view. But while the government is pulling out all the stops to promote parental involvement in their children’s education, it clearly does not intend to hand over responsibility wholesale.

The government’s aim with this campaign is to use children’s homework as a way of making connections with their parents. In Margaret Hodge’s fantasy world, parents who would previously plonk their kids in front of TV and fail even to speak to them in proper sentences sit around reading the Sure Start books, carefully illustrated with characters from every ethnic group, and learning about the kinds of activities and values that society officially approves of. When it comes to ‘breaktime’, these parents get online and swap stories and problems with other parents via a government website. As if parents didn’t have better things to do than take part in polls about bullying policy, and as if they can’t be trusted to buy books for their children that they read to them for fun.

And as if this government propaganda had any educational value at all. Call me old fashioned, but when the Sure Start programme in a large London borough produces major campaigns advertising ‘drop-in’s’, and when the Parent Centre website Germanically asks ‘How old is your Child?’, it doesn’t bode well for a literacy campaign.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) More support for parents to give children the best start in life – Hodge, Department for Education and Skills, 20 October 2003

(2) More support for parents to give children the best start in life – Hodge, Department for Education and Skills, 20 October 2003

(3) The Parent Centre

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Topics Politics


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