We all know that family support is vital for a child’s education. Parents provide help with homework, discuss progress with teachers, provide transport to sporting and cultural activies, and generally help to create a culture of enthusiasm for learning. Ideally, they will also model that enthusiasm by learning themselves, and talking with others in the family about how they are getting on.
Inevitably, though, some families don’t meet that admirable ideal. We could ignore that, on the grounds that people’s attitudes and values are their own business and not the government’s. But that is a pretty short-sighted view, especially given what we know about family support for education and people’s life chances as adults. So if we do think something should be done, what is the best form of action to take?
Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of education for England, has suggested that schools should be able to fine parents who allow their children to neglect homework, miss parents’ evenings or fail to read with their children.
Well, it’s a solution of sorts, though it strikes me as hopelessly out of touch with reality. Who will fines hurt most? How exactly will fining people change their attitudes and behaviour? Do schools have the capacity to handle appeals? Will headteachers really send for bailiffs to collect unpaid fines? How will such fines affect relationships between parents and teachers?
More to the point, Wilshaw is ignoring evidence of an alternative approach to parental engagement that actually appears to work. This at first seems strange, given that some of that evidence was produced by the inspectorate, which collaborated with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education on a series of pilot projects to promote family learning.
Family learning offers a far better approach to engaging disadaged families than fining them. But it requires a much more strategic approach to learning across the life course than either Michael Wilshaw or the current government is willing to consider.