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Education: Home help vital for learning

09 June 2023

How best can parents support children throughout their years in education, asks Clive Price


ROB hit crisis point in his final year at university. When he paid a visit home, his parents were shocked to find him “pale, sad, hunched over, and mumbling”. Long days and lonely nights had mounted up and overwhelmed him with depression.

His parents launched a rescue bid of “being there”. They took it in turns to live with Rob at his flat over several weeks, encouraging daytime study and evening chats and cinema outings. They helped him to find a routine. Rob finished his dissertation and got his degree.

The family’s story is told on the website of the charity YoungMinds, whose aim is to stop young people’s mental health from reaching a crisis point. A key part of that is advising parents and carers through a Parents Helpline service.

Just how do you help your child not only survive, but thrive, in school, college, and university? Teachers and tutors say that it is the little things that can make a big difference.

Dr Lee Elliot Major is the UK’s first ever Professor of Social Mobility, based at the University of Exeter. He earned press coverage with his recent book The Good Parent Educator: What every parent should know about their children’s education.

He believes that the Government has a flawed social policy, which works on the principle that schoolteachers and university lecturers will solve all of society’s ills.

“All the evidence I’ve looked at and reviewed around the world suggests the opposite. You’ve got to help parents in their home, and guide them in how to help their children — particularly those who don’t have the resources.”

How should parents start? “The most basic thing is sitting down and sharing a book with your children, particularly in the early years,” Dr Elliot Major said. “You don’t even need to be able to read to do it: it’s just showing an interest, asking questions.”

A parent who struggles with reading could learn with their child. “It has to be done in a way that’s enjoyable, so it’s not just another person telling you what to do,” he said. It also needed to be set into a routine in the home, perhaps around the dinner table, or at bedtime.

“What we find in all the research is: it’s the basics that matter most. We can have all the really sophisticated conversations about techniques in the classroom, but, if we get the basics right, we’d have a lot more children prospering in the classroom.”

The challenge for all schools and universities is that the parenting programmes that have been delivered attract mainly what he calls the “sharp-elbow” parents whose middle-class spirit propels their children through school.

“What we need to do is think a bit more innovatively,” he said. “There are some really interesting things where you have what schools call ‘parent champions’. They are parents in the local community. Often, they’re on the estate, or in the more working-class areas. But they understand that community better, and they advocate for them.

“When children aren’t turning up for school, the parent champion can actually say: ‘Look, this is what’s going on on that street.’ The teachers often don’t know. I quite like that. For me, it has to be a more collaborative partnership model.”

He challenges teachers to discard the “deficit mindset” that says that certain families are rough and need mending. “I honestly believe everyone has assets and talents. This is hard, because teachers are overstretched, but it’s building up trusting relationships with those parents.”

Dr Elliot Major believes that schools, colleges, and universities can also help by sending positive news to families. “There’s nothing like it,” he said. “This world we live in, I feel, is quite depressing for all of us, isn’t it? There’s not much good news.

“I’m an optimist in human nature. If you can provide a little glint of good news — and it has to be genuine — I’m convinced there will be something you can give back to those parents.”


A TEACHER at a joint Methodist-Church of England primary school, who teaches in reception, said that technology was helping teachers to do just that. She asked not to be named.

She pointed to such websites as ClassDojo: a global community of teachers and families who come together to share children’s most important learning moments, in school and at home, through photos, videos, and messages.

Other similar online services include Seesaw, which tries to keep everyone in the loop of each child’s schooling with “seamless collaboration”; Edulink One, which gives parents instant access to their child’s education, from attendance to achievement; and Tapestry, that builds a record of a child’s learning journey.

The offline experience in the classroom and at the school gate is also important. “It’s very easy to spot the children that are doing work at home and those that aren’t,” the teacher said. “I still get a lot of parents that think it’s just our job.”

She reckons that half her class do not read at home. She has seen a decline in parents’ telling bedtime stories, nursery rhymes, and traditional tales to their children. “I would say there’s a chunk of children who don’t get that bedtime story.”

The teacher recognised that parents might not always be able to give that extra help. The pressure is on homes as well as schools. “I work full-time, and I’ve got kids. I know how difficult it is,” she said.

Anxieties from their own education experiences can hinder parents in engaging. The teacher suggests such activities as “well-being coffee mornings”, “pop in and play” for reception-age children, and “meet the teacher” events. Parents can be invited to come in and share stories in the classroom. “There’s always more you can do,” she said.

A play therapist and teacher with many years’ experience of working in Roman Catholic, state, and independent schools, also unnamed, suggested that definitions of parental help for children were important. “Some people will define that as sitting down and making sure they do their homework,” she said. “That does have a place. But, I think, far more important is the emotional well-being of the child: they have to feel loved, valued, and known for who they are, not what they can do.”

In the course of her work, she has met several people who have had personal challenges after being judged solely on their academic performance. Constantly asking a child about their school work does them a disservice, she says, because the message that the child gets is: “I’m only important because of what I do.”

There are many simple activities in the advice available, such as:

  1. Don’t ask your child about their day. Children often answer in a vague way. Instead, try: “I’ve missed you today. I’ve been thinking about all the things you might have been doing, and have been looking forward to seeing you again.” That nuanced exchange puts the parent and child union before the child’s performance. “They want to know their parent has been thinking about them. It’s more than just conversation.”

  2. Give your child freedom to let off steam after their school day. They can think of more creative ways to keep the conversation going about their learning: doing a fun quiz on the journey home, taking a different route, walking through a park.

  3. Don’t stop when your child grows up and leaves for university. Parents and carers should still continue reading books and talking about them around the home — a learning journey that could take you from The Gruffalo to Great Expectations.

DR MARK MASON is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Chichester and has experience in collaborative partnerships. Students, he said, are in a stronger position if they come from homes where books are read and discussed, and where media messages are criticised.

“For those who don’t have that experience, it’s much tougher for us,” he said. “But what we seek to do, as soon as students arrive, is to inculcate them with that understanding of education and study as something you undertake with others.

“We get them interacting with their peers and with our staff. We’re of a size where our students will be known by name by significant numbers of staff. It’s through knowing others and being known that that equalisation of whatever learning deficit or learning advantage individual students may have had happens.”

University is a place of adult education, where students are expected to study for themselves. This is not pursued in isolation, however, but in a learning community.

“It’s obvious to our academic and support staff if the students have come from a background where there is that sharing of learning, of inquiry, in the family context,” Dr Mason said. At Chichester University, it was about working with students on a “relational understanding of study”.

Dr Mason said: “Conversation is really important. I would encourage parents and others to talk with those who are studying about what they are learning, and to get them to share that learning.”

Clive Price has lectured on media studies, public relations, and newsletter production at Chichester College, the London College of Communication, and the LSE. He has also worked as a storyteller in primary schools.

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