Why the Parental contract matters

There is a lot of talk in the news at the moment in Britain about making state schools as good as private ones, and Michael Gove, the British secretary for education, has made it one of his missions to make this a reality.

So why it is that private school are usually so much better than state ones? I find that usually this debate focuses on very superficial things like the argument that ‘they have more money therefore they have better resources’. On the surface, of course, I do not disagree with this claim, but is this really why the students at private school achieve better on average than their state school counter parts? Personally I do not believe it is as simple as this.

I, as regular readers of this blog will know, did not go to a very good school – it was probably one of the worst in the country. It has since improved slightly, and my experience, I would argue, leads me to believe that the reason private schools do better has little to do with resources. My school, for instance, had some very good resources and facilities; I think it is more to do with attitude and parental involvement.

What do all private school children have in common? Their parents are paying for their education out of their own pocket. Now, we can just read this as a simple case of ‘because they can afford to pay for it, that is the only reason they do it’, but we all know this is not the case, as not all parents who can afford it actually send their children to private school. The significance of this decision lies in how much the parents value their children’s education. Of course, I am not saying that those who do not send their children to private schools do not value education but the ones that do, clearly do.

So why is this important? Well, education is not about going to school, learning for a few hours and then coming home. Education is a process, and it should be continuous in one’s life – when a child comes home they should continue to be educated by their parents. Now, that is not to say that the parents need to sit their children down and set them work (although your parents being able to help with your homework is always a bonus) but they should be talking to their children about things, about the world and about life.

Now, many may say it is very arrogant of me to presume that all private school parents do this and that state school ones do not. Of course there are exceptions, but it is clear that a parent that pays for their child’s education obviously wants the most out of it – or else why would they pay? There seems to be a very strong relationship in private schools between the parents, the teachers and the students. They expect a certain level of performance and discipline that is not always expected at state schools – it certainly was not at mine.

If you really want to make a state school as good as a private one, I think you have to get the parents involved and make sure that they understand their role in their child’s education – a parent should not be a passive observer but an active participant. I think in many ways I learnt more about the world from my parents than I did at school, it is obvious that all my interest in philosophy and politics came from my home life.

In this country we increasingly see education as something that schools and teachers ‘do’; we have forfeited our parental and societal responsibility to children’s education. If we do not have the teachers and the parents working towards the same goal then we are in fact fighting a losing battle. It was very obvious to me at school that the children whose parents took the most active role in their education usually succeeded. We need to make sure that our schools are forging relationships between staff and parents – much like charity, education should begin at home.

We need a state school system that involves parents more in their children’s education. If we endeavour to do so, then I truly believe that perhaps our state schools would achieve as well as our private ones – and if we do so, this could have profound implications on inequality in education.

It is not all about academia: the importance of music and sports in education

The main purpose of our education system seems to be academic achievement. Although we do wish for children to do well at all subjects in the curriculum, there is undoubtedly an academic hierarchy – maths, English and science being at the top, and other languages, the humanities and the arts at the bottom. So primarily, success in education is judged by how well one does in the top-end subjects.

In the UK we are currently placing a large emphasis on exam results; we make schools compete against one another and publish league tables. In the schools that are deemed to be failing, emphasis is always put on getting children to do well in English and maths, with all other subjects being regarded as less important. To me this is a big issue. Not only does it remove the chances (in some cases) of children from poor backgrounds getting a properly well-rounded education – I argued in my first piece that this is what exam based education does anyway – but if all the emphasis falls on these two subjects, then the likelihood of this happening increases.

So where do music and sport come into this? Well, I think that if you wish for children to succeed academically in English and maths – but also in science and all the other subjects as well – you must make sure that they are able and greatly encouraged to regularly participate in sport and music. Over two thousand years ago, Plato noted in his great work The Republic, that for someone to live a fulfilled life they must partake in gymnastics, music and philosophy. I believe his point is still relevant today – we cannot isolate academic success from these two very important disciplines.

In the private school sector these provisions are a given; children are able to pursue a wide range of extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, this is not true for state schools. Whilst regular sport is mandatory up to the age of sixteen, it is in many cases vastly underfunded and music is even further behind: while music lessons are attended by all students up to fourteen, there is no requirement to learn an instrument.

Furthermore, these activities are becoming increasingly seen as an added extra for schools that achieve good exam results, and not important in their own right, independent of academic success. This is where I think we have a huge issue, in that experience in these disciplines is extremely important, and can in many cases go hand-in-hand with academic success.

Speaking from experience, I never really achieved particularly well academically until I took up sport and music. Now I know that this personal experience is not solid proof of anything, but this is not just a one-off experience of my own. Indeed, there has been evidence given that has shown that participation in sport and learning a musical instrument can be linked to academic success.

An example of music improving education in this country is the ‘In Harmony’ scheme. Inspired by the El Sistema scheme in Venezuela, local orchestras are used to teach children in schools how to play orchestral instruments and also forming youth orchestras. This scheme has seen rises in attendance at the schools that take part and also a massive rise in results – so why is it that funding for music in schools is not being protected by the government? It seems obvious that participation improves results, but we fail to see any innovative action taken.

I also believe mass participation in sport would improve results. In many schools (including the one I attended) there are poor facilities, and the only sports that are particularly encouraged are athletics and football. In most cases the funding is just not there to provide the opportunity for children to be able to learn a sport from a wide range of options. This is a serious issue, not just for academic achievement, but for the health of our nation as well: there is a vast difference between four hours of non-committal sport a week and a child committing to, and becoming passionate about, a sport. The skills that one gains from this are invaluable: focus, self-discipline, self-confidence and plenty more I could mention. Instead of taking a short-sighted view and attempting to improve English and maths results by cutting off a great deal of access to other areas of the curriculum, we should be investing in sport and music; the skills that not only improve results, but also equip students with skills that will be important for later life as well.