Carry on outside the classroom: what every parent needs to know

help for school life part 1
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In the first of a two-part series on helping your children with their school life, Nicola Swanborough looks at how to give emotional and practical support.

Homework, as any parent knows, can be a source of friction and frustration. But, with some understanding on both sides, a family battleground can be turned into a magnificent opportunity. A new dimension to home learning has sprung from dissatisfaction with the system. While children benefit from the chance to learn around the kitchen table, parents gain a new insight into their offspring's progress

Does helping your child with his homework constitute cheating? Should the half-term project be a family affair or should you just "let him do it himself"?

The role of parents as co-educators is changing. With 85 per cent of a child's waking hours spent outside school, educationists are placing greater emphasis on the importance of home learning. Parents - once overlooked - make a difference, the experts say.

Schemes and initiatives to help parents boost their children's levels of achievement are being timetabled by schools and education authorities. The Department of Education and Employment is funding a nationwide project to promote home learning.

"If we have learned one thing in the last 30 years," says Professor John MacBeath of the Quality in Education Centre, Strathclyde University, "it is that education achievement rests on what is learned outside school. Schools make a difference, but only when they are able to capitalise on informal and home learning." Parental dissatisfaction with the education system is adding a new dimension to home learning too. National confidence in schools as an institution has declined dramatically. Research at the Henley Centre shows that faith in schools dropped from 44 per cent in 1983 to 37 per cent in 1995.

"People are finding schools less reliable and are stepping in to make up the shortfall," says Paul Flatters, associate director at the Centre. "The penalties of poor education in the Nineties are much more severe than they were in the Seventies, and this is driving parents to become more personally involved in their children's schooling."

So as the new academic year gets under way, how can you best support your child's education at home? What is to be gained by taking an active role in your child's school life?

Next week: computers and homework

primary school

Everyday ways of gently bringing home some of school's hardest lessons

Parents provide the sustained continuity and one-to-one assistance which it is impossible to replicate in the classroom. As a parent you are in a privileged position. You know your own child. You don't have to build up a relationship with him or her: it is already established.

In a relaxed home environment, away from the often critical eyes of his peer group, individual help and encouragement can help to boost a child's confidence and morale. A simple problem at school can loom large if it means having to queue to see the teacher. Tackled at home over the kitchen table, the problem can usually be quickly solved.

Parents are often nervous of helping children with the basics of education - reading, writing and maths - for fear of "doing it the wrong way" and confusing the child further or interfering with the teacher's instructions. But most teachers are willing to explain a teaching method to parents if it will mean extra personal tuition at home.

Helping at home does not however mean turning the dining room into a classroom. Dr Kathy Sylva, a reader in educational studies at the University of Oxford advises against trying to mimmick the teacher.

"Children don't want to come home from school to find their parents behaving like their teacher. If you start saying `What do you think will happen if we do this?' they're going to wonder what you're playing at.

"Children learn in an interactive social context with the learner taking a major part in the conversation. It is good to have more than one approach to education. The key is to act normally. "Try turning everyday activities such as shopping into an opportunity for learning. Encourage your child to compare prices in the supermarket, to weigh up the advantages of special offers, to help write a shopping list in order to provide enough food for the week.

"Planning a holiday is another good opportunity for learning. Encouraging children to make lists of things they need to pack, items they need to buy, and calculating how much money they will need to spend brings in all sorts of literacy and numeracy in a fun and subtle way, as does planning a route with a map."

Engaging in literacy can be as simple as talking about road signs, taking your child to the library, reading the back of the cereal packet, making literacy a part of everyday life rather than something relevant only to a reading scheme at school. Support your child's school as an enterprise. This will help him accept school life in a positive manner. Stress the importance of spellings and timetables if they are set as homework, but remember that children are not born knowing how to memorise sets of numbers and word patterns. Helping them establish a method of learning is half the battle.

Listening to your child reading is very important but so is reading to him or her. Making time to share a book or a conversation is all part of interactional learning.

Children learn well when they are allowed to become the teacher. With literacy, numeracy and particularly IT, learning can be reinforced by encouraging the child to explain to you how the computer works or how a particular sum is calculated. Know when to stand back. "With a child who is struggling at school, home often needs to be a refuge," says Dr Sylva. "You need to look for opportunities to support their learning in a subtle way but you also need to provide somewhere for them to relax and escape the pressure of school. Stress with your child's teacher that you are supporting them but feel the need to give the child space."

secondary years (11-18)

A secondary school curriculum for parents

Secondary schools tend to be big and impersonal and not so instantly approachable as the local primary. This is the age when parents often lessen their involvement with their child's education. Children begin to distance themselves as they become increasingly independent. But family support and encouragement is still as important, if different.

One of the greatest assets a parent can offer a child throughout secondary school is space for conversation. "It really is very important for parents and children to keep open good communication channels," says child psychologist Jennie Lindon.

"Technically parents can do a lot at home with their children but only if they can speak to each other and maintain a good relationship. The best help is that which is asked for." Much of the help needed by children at secondary level concerns the mechanics of applying themselves to set tasks and the emotional support to keep going when things get tough. As homework becomes more structured and regular, children need to learn how to cope with it. "It is important for them to appreciate that study has to be started before it can be finished," says Jennie Lindon. Setting aside an hour-and-a-half-slot each night for homework as well as fitting in television and extra curricular activities is a discipline which needs to be learned. Children need to know that a quiet area where they can study undisturbed will be respected by other siblings. Not all children work well in peace and quiet. Some work better with background music or, where appropriate, as a joint venture with a friend. Both these need to be monitored before being dismissed as unnecessary distractions.

Parents often feel that beyond filling in the homework diary as part of the home/school partnership, much of the set homework is out of their depth. But helping children to find information is as beneficial as imparting specific knowledge, whether it is using the index of a book or searching the internet.

Learning should not be an isolated process. Children cannot be expected to progress purely from the resources inside their heads. Parents are as much of a resource as is the library or the teacher and tapping a parent for information is an acceptable contribution to learning. Talking through a project can be a starting block for carrying out the task independently. Do not let your own ideas dominate your child's work. Avoid hovering over him while he studies: make it clear that you are available if needed. Be prepared to have your offers of help refused, too. Children need to take risks with their own work, and rely on their own abilities. Getting it wrong is also part of the learning process.

As course and exam work intensify, emotional back-up and a sense of time and proportion become as essential as academic support. Keeping a sense of normality around a child revising for exams can keep the exams in proportion.

A positive approach by parents to their child's education will help the child value the school. "Obviously you don't have to pretend to like all of the teachers," says Jennie Lindon, "but if you show an overall belief in the school, it will instill confidence in the child."


* Work with your child's head teacher. Education should be a home- school partnership

* Don't try to mimic the teacher: children expect a different approach to learning at home and benefit from it

* Encourage your child to teach you: this will promote self-confidence and reinforce learning

* Make space in the day for conversation: communication is the basis of a good parent-child relationship

* Parents are a useful home resource: constructive help is not cheating

* Let your child make his own mistakes: this is part of the learning process too


Further reading: Positive Parenting Help your child with homework and exams, by Jennie Lindon, published by Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 5.99; Help your child through Secondary School, by Peter Downes and Carey Bennet, published by Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 6.99; Help your child through the national curriculum by Graeme Kent, published by Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 6.99.

Helping a child in the GCSE years - what parents really need to know

Parents whose children are beginning Year 10 or Year 11 in September frequently find themselves gripped by nameless but definite anxieties during the summer months. Youth is there to be lived, no doubt, but shouldn't their kids actually be doing something constructive, if only occasionally dipping into a study guide or textbook? Bruce Harris looks at what parents can do to help their offspring make the transition into the big league

Parents' urge to help their children during what is likely to be an anxious and crucial period of schooling is inevitably strong. But is there a constructive role for parents to play? Recent research says there definitely is. I interviewed 30 girls and 30 boys in the important Year 11 February- May period, asking them about revision, coursework, homework, Years 10 and 11 and any "non-academic" problems interfering with their chances. The results supported what had been suggested by questionnaire information from over 700 pupils in six schools, including three large comprehensives, two single-sex selective schools and an independent grammar school.

So what are the points which parents could usefully bear in mind?

For many pupils, Year 10 is disastrous. Time and again, people in Year 11 said that they regretted not doing enough in Year 10. The consequences ranged from huge coursework backlogs to a lack of material to use for revision. Many admitted that they had not worked in Year 10 in spite of persistent warnings from teachers, and there were suggestions that Year 10 is regarded by the pupil body generally as a time for taking it easy. Tough love may be called for here.

Study and revision guides don't necessarily solve the main problems. Most of them are mainly or entirely subject-based, as is most of the revision covered in school. What many pupils find really difficult is organising the work for sometimes as many as nine or 10 subjects. Time management and prioritising work present huge headaches. Subject teachers often demand that their work must come first, and some subjects contain a larger body of work than others. Some subjects assess on a mixture of coursework and examination; others organise on a modular basis, with tests at the end of each term. For the pupil, the picture can be confusing. Thirteen of the most successful 15 of my interviewees worked to a definite revision programme, and started at least by the middle of March.

Parents are likely to have the impression that GCSE work is very heavy at some times and very light at others. This, rightly or wrongly, tends to be the nature of the beast. Most of the mock exams are placed at the beginning of the second term of Year 11 and coursework and revision are likely to clash. They overlap again when coursework deadlines correspond with times when revision programmes should be underway, usually around Easter. The research also suggests that subject departments in schools do not talk to each other as much as they should, and worksetting can lurch from heavy to light as a matter of course. It is therefore extremely important that pupils try to use the light periods constructively. All the evidence shows that people who get behind find it progressively more difficult to catch up; some can be lost and struggling by the beginning of Year 11.

Stereotypical as it all seems, boys are likely to be more confident of success and less prepared to work long hours to achieve it. Girls tend to be more questioning about the career value of the subjects they do and they do seem to be more prone to exam nerves, even though they do better in the final analysis. Many boys admit that they are less likely to confide in others when they have problems, and this can be very dangerous; figures have shown that, while fewer boys attempt suicide, many more of them succeed in killing themselves.

Parents must beware of becoming the problem rather than the solution. Thirteen of the least successful 15 interviewees had problems to deal with which were nothing to do with their academic work, and the great majority of these were to do with families. Some crises, like deaths or illnesses, were unavoidable; but in almost all cases, pupils had little access to counselling help. The figures also showed that pupils' expectations are lower than their parents', and many do not feel able to achieve what their parents are expecting of them.

Like most parental tasks, the GCSE years involve some complicated questions and few clear solutions. It should be emphasised that most pupils find their way through without major traumas, and it doesn't do to over-stress the negative. But it helps to be aware of what can happen - just in case it does.