It’s The Parents, Stupid — Re-thinking the issues surrounding private and state education

3 July 2010

There was a good turn out at the Wellington Festival of Education, making me think there’s a real value in running something like this in an environment which is less loaded with privilege and dripping with elitism. Wellington College’s grounds are stunning: it has huge grounds, hundreds of acres of playing fields and lots of fabulous Victorian buildings. Not surprisingly, many punters were a bit hostile about what I said, with one poor public school boy spitting blood at my comments that the education at most private schools is actually quite poor and extremely utilitarian. However, one parent did agree that the private school she sent her child was horribly competitive and obsessed with appearances — guess where she sent her kid? The very school I was speaking in.

Seldon opened the conference with his familiar attack on state schools for being too exam oriented. At the time, I found this a breath-taking act of hypocrisy given that Wellington College selects its students by Common Entrance, one of the most reductive set of exams floating around at the moment, and it got worse: it appears that Seldon actually introduced a new entrance test for his 11 year olds. I agreed with much of what he said in that he feels lessons should be much more about problem-solving and involve active learning, but I find it stunning that he should attack state schools for generating passive learners when it’s well known that the Common Entrance fosters some of the worst passive learning in the country.

Here’s the talk:

A Talk Given At The Sunday Times Education Festival

The statistics appear to be incontrovertible when you look at the headline figures. Private schools beat state schools hands down. In 2009, 93.1% of sixth-form public school pupils continued to higher education, well over double the national average. 93% of pupils get at least one offer from university, with more than 70% of them from a Sunday Times top 25 university. One in six post-graduates has been privately educated. In 2009, more than one entry in four (28.9%) received the A* grade, up from 28.5% in 2008 (compared to 7.1% nationally, up from 6.8% in 2008).[1]

It was these sorts of statistics and my own experience of being a teacher in various comprehensives that led me to sending my child to a private school when he was four years old, rather than the local inner-city primary. I sent him there for all the reasons: better discipline, smaller classes, more extra-curricular, higher expectations. I was six years ago a fully paid up elitist. I believed that my child should be cordoned off and enjoy a superior education in a bubble.

Then a strange thing happened. I grew in confidence as a parent. I saw increasingly that it wasn’t my child’s school that was ensuring his success but my own parenting. He wanted to read because we all read a lot at home, he wanted to do well at Maths because we played counting games. In fact, much of what he was learning at school, particularly when he turned seven was putting him off learning: he was being prepared already for the 11+ and Common Entrance exams.  He was miserable, being expected to complete hours of boring homework, filling in worksheets and listening in silence to the teacher as he lectured day in, day out. By then, I’d also read nearly all of the research in the field on attainment at school and

I’d just written a book on anti-social behaviour, Yob Nation, and a couple of educational guides. Again and again I was confronted with research which stated very clearly that it was a child’s environment at home which was the most significant determiner of success. Charles Desforges’ massive research review for the government in 2004 highlighted certain behaviours exhibited by parents which virtually guaranteed a child’s success in life. It was all basic but vital stuff: talk to your child regularly, have high expectations, have good links with your child’s school, complain if something’s wrong, praise where appropriate. Other research by organisations like Save The Children estimates that 85% of a child’s success at school is based on factors outside the classroom.

I was also discovering the dark side of the elitism that I’d believed in so strongly: my son increasingly felt the “poor” one at school, the one who didn’t have the big house of his peers, the big car, the grand holidays, the fabulous birthday parties. I came to realise that the school was not really about education but about buying social status.

My wife and I decided to take the plunge and pull our son out of the private school and put him in the local state primary. It was a wrench but almost immediately he gained the confidence he lost from the relentless teasing at school, from being told both explicitly and implicitly that he wasn’t as clever as the other children, from feeling he didn’t fit. That was nearly two years ago now. His last report was excellent: he’s doing much better than he did before.

His fellow pupils at the old school appear to being put through hell, being prepped endlessly for extremely stressful tests.

Most importantly, I’ve seen with my own eyes that it’s so important to believe in yourself as a parent and to be guided where necessary. That while school matters to a degree, it’s what goes on at home that matters. That’s why I decided to go part-time and pick my son up from school.

My experiences led me to write a book Working The System – How To Get The Best State Education For Your Child. Time and again I return in the book to the fact that it’s good parenting that’s the key. It’s something I’ve known for a long time as a teacher but it’s taken my experiences with my son to make me believe in it as a parent.

It makes me realise that we’re wrong to make our schools answerable for every social ill in society. Which is something both left and right are very keen to do. The new Education Secretary Michael Gove is urging all schools to become “academies” like the ones the Labour Party brought in to solve educational under-achievement in our inner-city areas. As Michael Wilshaw, the headteacher of one of the most successful academies and a speaker at this conference, has said, these schools have copied a great deal from our top private schools; providing extended school days, pastoral systems such as “houses”, uniforms, and a distinct sense of an “independent” brand, which is not contaminated by the community they are part of. Like our boarding schools, they are aiming in many cases to supplant the role of parents, by providing enrichment activities for their pupils, lots of trips and things like “mentoring”. However, the success of these schools is patchy, with recent independent reports suggesting that overall their achievements are unproven. What is certain that like most schools in the private sector, they get rid of the pupils they don’t like. In 2008, they were responsible for two per cent of all temporary exclusions and three per cent of permanent exclusions, despite making up only 0.3 per cent of state schools in England.

While academies certainly attempt to be surrogate parents to the pupils they don’t boot out, they are nothing compared to the schools that Michael Gove really likes. He has touted on many occasions his love for the Knowledge Is Power, KIPP, schools which have emerged in the US. Taking pupils from disadvantaged areas in the US, KIPP schools run ten hour school days, school during the weekends and holidays. They appear on the surface to be spectacularly successful. Although less than 10 per cent of this population usually gain acceptance to university, over 80 per cent of Kipp students have matriculated to higher education institutions. But if you scratch the surface, you find a different story. Like many private schools, they relentlessly drill their students to the test. Kipp schools are forbidding places because teachers prepare pupils for tests rather than fostering genuine learning. Surveys have shown that, at some Kipp schools, nearly 60 per cent of students don’t believe that their lessons challenge their thinking.

Moreover, working conditions in such schools is poor with over half the staff leaving in some schools every year. Student dropout rates are very similar too. Again, like many private schools these schools get rid of students who will mess up their amazing statistics.

The truth is that schools can’t replace the role of parents, unless it’s through smoke and mirrors. To genuinely turn things around we need to get parents and schools and the local community working together before it’s too late: the fact is that all academies and KIPP schools are acting too late for the children who really need the help the most.

Four out of ten children aged 3 living in the most deprived areas in England in 2009 reached the expected levels in the Early Years Foundation Stage compared to half of children on average. Nearly all of the children who achieve a good level of development at age five in England go on to achieve the expected levels for reading at Key Stage 1 (age 6/7), and they are five times more likely to achieve the highest level. Developments in neuro-science mean that we now know that aged 6, a child’s brain ‘architecture’ is almost complete.

The only really successful programmes for raising educational under-achievement are ones which that have intervened very early. Save The Children’s Families and Schools Together (FAST) programme. It’s award winning, US / UK Government and UN endorsed. It is all about strengthening communities by bringing schools and parents together. Developed in the USA in 1988 by Professor Lynn McDonald, Professor of Social Work Research at Middlesex University

It’s universal…

Any family, and all family members can volunteer to attend – no targeting. No lectures, it’s parent-let and anyone of any ability can participate. Highest published retention rates of any parenting programme in the UK: 94% compared to the usual averages of 40 – 60%.

By improving parental confidence, self-esteem and their ability to support their child’s learning and development, parents are then better able to perceive local services, such as the school, as positive.  FAST’s methodology of working in partnership with parents supports them on a pathway towards accessing a range of targeted and specific educational interventions. FAST therefore functions as the first step on the ladder for many parents enabling them to go on to access a range of  local services.

It’s proven…

Research from the US found the following amongst 9,500 children

surveyed from 2004 to 2008:

I believe we all could learn a lesson from the FAST programme, if only a conceptual and philosophical lesson. The FAST programme implicitly acknowledges that children only progress significantly at school when the parents are on board. Instead of trying to turn schools into surrogate homes and teachers into surrogate parents, we need to get everyone working together to solve under-achievement. This means that much more thought needs to be given to involving parents more in schools.


[1] http://www.isc.co.uk/FactsFigures_GCSEResults.htm

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