Teachers have the responsibility for educational outcomes.
Have you ever noticed how the woes of society, are very quickly given ownership under the auspices of education and educators? Today a teacher and leader in education will be battling the terrors of terrorism, educating students about what it means to be British, how to cope with cyber bullying and an internet explosions of abuse, including in their lessons the norms of sex, creating students resilience against mental health issues, and whatever the next concern becomes a national issue. In our current system the state and its educators seem to be the ultimate shapers of student academic and moral backgrounds. Is it just me thinking isn’t there a group of individuals equally responsible and in fact absolutely fundamental to child’s development……….the parent, the family, and family friends, a community? Before a teacher is ever introduced to a child the influence of the parent is all encompassing.
I am not considering the inheritance that a parent gives a child from their gene pool (I am aware this is incredibly dismissive and naive), but concentrating my experiences on the environmental factors that are created to support the child’s development and ability to learn. There is so much research, in so many different fields, from language acquisition and formation, and later the development of literacy, mathematical resilience and the tenacity, to problem solve and thinking outside the box, emotional literacy, the capacity to hear others and to empathise and learn from peers.
Within my experience I have seen what I believe to be one of the largest factors of influence and I do hope Carol Dweck [i]will forgive me for abusing her phrase, “the growth mind-set” and assigning it to Parents. The parents’ growth mind-set, is powerful in influencing a child’s ability to take on challenge and to succeed in education. If parents are regularly displaying a “I can’t do this, I was never any good at…” (Add maths and science here if it is a white working class parent.) Then their child will inevitably exhibit the same attitudes. Vice versa if a parent regularly presents a “yes we can” when tackling problems and has a school history and career, to back up this belief. Then the child stands more of a fighting chance when facing challenge in school.
Whatever your background parents and school go hand in hand in supporting a child’s education. So why is this not acknowledged? Why do we have a system that now holds educators primarily and singularly responsible for outcomes? Is it that to admit that parents play a significant if not lead role in influencing students learning, is to apportion some accountability to us as parents? Would this be political suicide? We seem to have moved to a society that is happy to apportion blame to adults for failure to achieve, or living off the state. Yet unable to acknowledge publically and politically that parents have a significant role to play in their child’s education. Parent Power really does matter but would acknowledging it improve our system?
Does Parent power matter?
My previous lead researcher and the author of Evidence into Practice would ask me to test my question. If I set up the hypothesis that parent power does matter. I could begin by looking at the extreme ends of the spectrum, those with no parent power as they have no parents. Our national data shows us that Looked After Children are most likely to not achieve their capacity within any education system. Without their parents, their ability to navigate successfully our education system is substantially hindered.
What about my own child? Does her experience help me to test the hypothesis? Quietly and possibly like many parent teachers, my own child has been at least an observational scientific research project and with a few tweaks. A test case for the Growth Mind set theory. Having engaged with Dweck’s work her ideas really resonated with the experiences I was facing on the ground. And with the opportunity of the birth of my daughter, we as Parents worked hard to give her a mind set and perspective to see opportunity in all challenge, and to value the role of perseverance in achievement. Clever was a word we have always been at pains to avoid! She is like all of us in no means perfect, but combined with this manufactured attitude and a set of parents who have successfully up until this point navigated the education system. She has a hell of a lot of advantages in coming to any learning. Her parent power influence is strong. Watching her with a spark of enthusiasm for a project and the capacity to access the internet. I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that she has enough ingredients from us to potentially navigate learning herself with only minimal tweaks from an adult. She is eight and she is not a genius but I believe you could put my daughter in room with a computer and spark her curiosity and she would learn and learn well. [ii]
If I then compare the cohorts of vulnerable white working class students that I have worked with their parent power in many cases is less. Parents care immensely, many have work with shift hours, and have never made it into further and higher education. Even if they want to help they don’t know how. Their child remains at a disadvantage. If I take one of my students in this circumstance back to the same room with the same material and I spark the same curiosity, will they would move forward would they achieve the same as someone with High Parent Power?
Parent power has impact but what happens when you combine this with teacher power?
Witnessing my daughter’s early years of education, I have seen her learn with her teachers. However this year she has had the privilege of working with an outstanding teacher. During her time at the school she made substantial progress which has rarely faltered regardless of the experience of the teacher in front of her. (That is until our current Government changed the measures against which students achieved, raising the bar significantly in primary. God bless her quote when she was informed of this in her end of year report, where she concluded, “this is ridiculous I have worked all year and some person has decided to make things harder? Why? What was his purpose? Why should I bother if this is going to happen again and again? How can I trust this system? I know her feeling!) In her last year working with an outstanding teacher her learning isn’t great it’s supersonic and rocketing beyond all expectation, spurring more intensive and self -driven learning at home.
If I look at the impact of teaching on a student with less parent power. I know from experience with a weak teacher their progress goes backward, with an inexperienced teacher their progress is slow, and with a strong practitioner they make substantial, sustained and expected progress. This is equivalent to the progress a high parent power student will make almost regardless of the teacher in the classroom. In low parent power schools, the influence and impact of the teacher is greatest, both positively and negatively.
What I believe and have seen time and again, is that a child with a family who has succeeded in education will succeed. The quality of the teacher will have impact but it is not the soul determinant of their success. Where teaching is poor students are resilient to it, their parental support allows them to continue to learn, and learning is created from the partnership of parent and teacher. Less input from a teacher can have greater impact. In reverse where the child has a family who might love and care immensely for the individual, but exhibit significant limitations in academic success, they have low parent power. The quality of the teacher becomes paramount. In these situations, the teacher and school do have the lead responsibility for education. They are almost the soul determinant of their success in education.
Would acknowledging parent power help to improve our system?
By not acknowledging the influence of parents and the variability of parent power I am not sure we are doing justice to both sets of students. For those that need most support from teachers, the most vulnerable, often find themselves in schools labelled as Failing and or Requiring Improvement, with falling roles, (anybody with half a mind to education tries to get the student out) and a more substantial proportion of lower ability student as opposed to the top end. Our current system funnels the weakest into the sink and or “loosing “ school, (see the chapter on market forces in education) resulting in the weakest school, taking the students that are influenced most by the quality of the teacher and whose progress is hardest to achieve. These students need high quality teachers in order to make expected progress. Perhaps our system recognises this and actively promotes outstanding teachers and leaders to these schools? Hold on a minute currently it does the opposite, and terrifies the living daylights at of anyone considering this vocation.
For those students that come with lots of advantage and external support, national and good progress is easier to stimulate and achieve. In fact given an outstanding teacher they will achieve mind exploding supersonic progress! This is where I get really frustrated. If I follow this theory through then if I want to succeed in delivering national progress with sustained effort, or with substantive effort be bathed in the glory of exceptional progress. I will head for a school with the most advantaged in parent power. With solid effort, in our current system I can exist in a Good or even Great school, and I can reap the rewards of the profession. I might even become complacent. There go many great teachers.
If I want to ……………………… why would someone want to work with the most disadvantaged in our current system? I have got to work really hard to help them to make national progress. If I want them to succeed, I have to maintain at outstanding performance, and then it will very rarely reach the heights of a child with educational advantaged Parents. I won’t recieve the accolades and rewards that go with this and place myself at risk. Is it career suicide? Yes, there go very few teachers.
Would the acknowledgement of Parent power improve the system?
From my perspective yes, for the high parent power child, it might introduce a greater expectation of student success and challenge schools with this advantage to achieve supersonic progress. Some do already, but can we get more in the system from out top end and middle end students? PISA tell us we can? In fact, I think we are pushing the wrong end if we wish our Pisa results to improve. John Hattie[iii] is clear it is the top end of the curve that should have more rigour. How are high parent power schools generating supersonic progress? For the low parent power child, it would acknowledge the extra that a school and teacher in these circumstances has to achieve.
Aren’t you just talking about pupil premium students isn’t it all about money? No low income with high parent power will see students excel as with all other high parent power students. I would have described the ex- grammar in my local area as taking more of this type of student. Money can help, a low parent powered parent who has the determination and a wallet to find someone else to provide the parent power in the form of a tutor will also see their child succeed. However, is this high parent power in a different capacity?
If you acknowledge this are we just giving teachers an opportunity to lower expectations to blame parents? With no acknowledgement of how powerful parents are in student outcomes we have created a system that is using a hard stick to beat those teachers working in low powered parent schools and does little to encourage any member of staff to work in these schools. How do we attract teachers to schools where you are the sole responsibility for education and the sharp end of accountability rests with you as a teacher?
At the same time where is the challenge in our system for high parent powered schools? How do we avoid complacency and ensure they maximise the potentia
[i][i] Growth Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential? Carol Dweck 2012
[ii] This has parallels to Sugata Mitra’s work The Hole in the Wall: Self Organising Systems in Education (Kindle Single) 24 Jan 2012 – please acknowledge this trial took place in a low stakes environment. Would children who come through primary in a high stakes education system feel the same about exploratory learning? They fear failure?
[iii] John Hattie Why are so many of our teachers and schools so good TED talks 22nd Nov 2013