opinion: help the parents and you'll help the children, too

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Two images stick very clearly in my mind when I think of how children experiencing difficulty in secondary school are sometimes dealt with. The first is the staffroom scene where a child is being discussed and someone says: "Well, if the parents behave like that, is it any wonder?" The second is that look of despair on the face of parents summoned to school to receive a list of their offspring's misdemeanours, followed by the inevitable exclusion. Every teacher in the country appreciates the importance of the family in determining a child's success at school. Yet when I searched extensively as part of a recent research project, I found very little constructive work on how to support parents in an extremely difficult task.

The family is the most significant classroom of all. By the time children are 16, they will have spent only 15 per cent of their waking lives in school. The remaining 85 per cent has been with family, friends and the wider community. Estimates of the impact of family background on educational success vary, but it is almost certainly the most important single factor.

It is time we acknowledged the vital role of parents in raising educational performance, and did some serious research on how to give them in-service training and support. There are two parts to this process: raising expectations and removing barriers.

Raising expectations requires a propaganda exercise on the importance of education, together with specific supports such as:

1. Training parents to be better at helping their children to study at home.

2. Offering a range of learning opportunitles for parents so that they can become lifelong learners - thereby setting an example for children.

3. Teaching specific courses for parents linked to what their children are studying, eg seminars on the current literary texts, modern mathematics, etc.

Removing barriers is more difficult because it means trying to improve circumstances for children when some aspect of their family life is specifically restricting their educational development. But it is this area of work that will probably, for some children in particular, produce the most dramatic improvements: certainly in schoolwork but also, I suspect, in the mental health of both children and parents, and in social factors such as juvenile crime. So far I have developed a list of four specific measures (although there are probably many more):

1. More open schools, helping parents whose own experience of school was one of humiliation and failure, to feel less threatened. 2. Parenting skills courses and support for parents of "difficult" children.

3. Improved diagnosis of educational failure in school.

4. Most radical is the idea of creating a new breed of professionals, skilled in certain aspects of educational psychology, family therapy and social work, who could assist families and schools by improving the working of dysfunctional families. The "Family Education Adviser" could do for education what health visitors and midwives have done for infant health care. By providing an essential link between home and school, they could well assume the role of the present educational welfare officer in its entirety, and also deal with some initial assessment where a referral is made to Social Services.

The most important aspect, however, would be to use the enhancement of a child's education as a rationale for working with a family. This would enable constructive and non-threatening intervention before major adolescent crises occur. Most schools could quickly produce a list of children whose family circumstances are seen as the barrier to learning. At present, there is very little that schools can do unless the child fails to attend school, or serious abuse or upset to the child is suspected. This needs to change.

There must be many professionals working within education or with families who can recognise a possible way forward with ideas such as these. I am seeking partners to help to establish a solid research base, pilot courses and training programmes and, most important, to create a forum for those who wish to develop a new thrust for educational and social advancement. Who will join me?

The author is deputy headteacher of Saint George's Church of England School, Meadow Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 7LS.