How Covid-19 exacerbates the “parent gap”

‘Many working-class parents are ill-equipped to prepare their children for the extra two years of education that they probably never experienced themselves’

Angela Ritch

As a sixth form teacher, I approach the end of this particularly weird academic year reflecting on the impact of Covid-19 on some of my students. I am worried that this year, more than ever, “the parent gap” will be a defining factor in the outcomes for them.

The crisis has brought many areas of education inequality to the forefront of our minds. Most of these are long-recognised and education policy has been designed and redesigned to try to tackle them. Material inequalities have been addressed through free-school meals programmes and, more recently, the pupil premium, targeting additional funding at the poorest. And schools, local authorities and central government have worked hard this year to ensure that these children and families still get additional help through the crisis.

Technological inequalities, “the digital divide”, are narrowing as relatively cheap smartphones and apps replace expensive PCs as essential tools for learning and some of those in greatest need have been provided with equipment through a central government Covid-19 scheme. We’re pretty good at building policy around education, and we’re getting nimbler at it.

I teach in a comprehensive in a grammar school county. Our cohort is varied but skewed towards white working-class. This group, we are told by a 2019 Neon (National Education Opportunities Network) study, are quite desperately under-represented at prestigious universities. My school, and all others like it, put a huge amount of energy into getting our students to positive destinations. Our sixth form has grown enormously over the last five years and we offer a fantastically diverse range of courses with a fully inclusive ethos. There is much to celebrate, but it is becoming clear to me that a section of our cohort do not achieve what they ought and that their future choices are limited by their parents.

American family therapist Ron Taffel tells parents that adolescence is “not about letting go, it’s about holding on tight through a bumpy road”. My students, as they bump through their A-level journey, need their parents to hear this message clearly.

It is unsurprising that many working-class parents are ill-equipped to prepare their children for the extra two years of education that they probably never experienced themselves. I know that some students will arrive on the first day of the new school year with a branded handbag and shining eyes but no pen and paper. Parents who don’t know what A levels entail cannot raise the appropriate sceptical eyebrow when their child says they have “no homework today”, or “a free period”. There is real, debilitating fear in the unknown. Some parents avoid answering phone calls from school. They never attend an information evening or even acknowledge an email highlighting concerns. I’m confident that, by and large, this is due to a feeling of impotence, rather than a lack of care. In general, these students underperform; in some cases they disappear from our classes completely, A levels being “not for them”. I’m especially worried this year about a cohort who’ve been left to their own devices since March, some of whom will be slipping off the radar.

There is clear consensus that most of these young people should now be in education. The multilateral policy journey which brought us to this point with 16-18 year-olds is known as RPA (Raising the Age of Participation); policy mooted under Labour, legislated for under the 2010 coalition government and delivered in full under Cameron in 2015. With an obligation to be in either education or recognised training schemes, 82 per cent of young people now elect to stay in full-time education through FE colleges and sixth form settings like mine, double the number of 10 years ago. This growth represents a huge success for RPA and its goal of delivering a higher-skilled workforce for the modern economy; it also means that more working-class children in particular are staying on to sixth form and aspiring to higher education.

What policy has failed to grapple with is that the engagement and responsibility of parents at this age-group cannot be taken for granted. The messaging is mixed and families who still need “nudging” (in the parlance of behavioural policy-speak) are left adrift at a time when parental support is no less critical a factor. Ron Taffel’s adolescent road is still bumpy, as young people
begin to deal with adult relationships and identity alongside huge changes in learning.

The “nudges” prior to 16 are given with pretty blunt instruments. Ultimately parents can be dealt with in the criminal justice system. Softer tactics include asking parents to sign (non-binding) “contracts” to support their child’s learning. School family liaison officers work tirelessly alongside families to bring them along and keep a child’s education (and other wellbeing factors) on track. But at 16, this often falls away, and there is a policy vacuum. The DfE statutory guidelines for local authorities on appropriate provisions for this age group makes not a single mention of the role of parents.

Without a legislative pathway, sixth form teams have little to work with when parents won’t engage. When a child stops attending classes regularly, there’s often nowhere to go. All too often (but not exclusively) these young people are from disadvantaged families and (geographical) areas of low participation at university. They are the target of the concerns of the Neon report. They are at grave risk of becoming Neets (Not in Education, Employment or Training). They should be in our sights. 

My recommendations would be twofold; firstly, build and support education-confident parenting. Work by Cristina Odone for the Legatum Institute indicates positive outcomes for supported parent peer-groups which develop confidence and create more “school ready children” at the beginning of a child’s education. A nationwide extension of such programmes could create a foundation of confidence for parents; similar “step-up” programmes could be developed for families for secondary and sixth form phases of education.

Secondly, statutory responsibility for young people in education should reside clearly and transparently with parents. This might come with financial penalties for poor attendance (often the slippery slope to low attainment at this stage). While this is, on the surface, a punitive measure, the signal it sends to parents and students about their responsibilities in education is important and it would provide a firm basis for bringing parents in to the conversation.

Covid-19 will leave next year’s university applicants with an even greater “parent gap”.  Where remote working and independent study will be far greater and the impact of my colleagues in teaching will inevitably be watered-down, we need to start thinking urgently about building long-term policies to close this gap and help get more of our students into those prestigious universities.

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