Greeted by cheers as she visited Mulberry School for Girls this week, Michelle Obama told the girls that: ‘With an education from this amazing school you all have everything, everything you need to rise above all of the noise and fulfil every last one of your dreams’. Education, she said, was the ‘ultimate key’ to success.
The furore surrounding her speech missed a vital point – education may be the key, but the girls will have to pick up the key, turn it in the lock and choose for themselves to walk through the door. To do this, they will need plenty of support, love and encouragement beyond the school gate. As a writer in The Conversation observed this week: ‘It’s absurd to lay all the responsibility for a child’s education at the feet of the school’.
Yet the view persists that if we give children and young people the best education that the world can offer, it will solve all ills. Sir Michael Wilshaw even claimed this week, in the wake of 3 Bradford mothers taking their children to Syria, that schools must teach British values to stop pupils joining ISIS, as if there is some single causal link between off loading a set of ill-defined dogmas in a classroom and the life-defining decisions that the 3 parents have made. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child and school is only one building in the village. Every child also has a home.
Education begins at home, from the moment that a child takes the first breath. Talking, playing, singing, reading, laughing, crying, eating together and even encouraging babies to understand that sleeping at night really is advisable for everyone concerned are all part of learning. The more of life we share with our children, the more we are helping them to learn and grow. As we do so, our actions are communicating our values and our children are absorbing them. Far from the start of school being the beginning of education, it’s the point at which the effectiveness of the parental role as first and best educator comes into its own.
This has been clearly proven in research going back over decades, yet successive governments, instead of addressing the issue of supporting parents, have offered more, and earlier, educational opportunity. In the case of this government, that comes layered with plenty of testing to demonstrate policy success. As recently as February, the House of Lords Select Committee report on Affordable Childcare pointed out that childcare is not a magic bullet, and that it cannot make up for the hours in the week that children spend at home. The report recommended that plans needed ‘to be accompanied by support for parents’ to ensure ‘a strong home learning environment’. The response of the government was to double childcare availability.
For Christian parents the vital role of parent as educator is a given – Psalm 127:3 says that ‘Children are a heritage from the Lord’ – a special gift that God gives us; people made in His image who need to be loved and nurtured. Although we utilise formal schooling in our contemporary culture, the principle that God gave to the people of Israel still holds good, that ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up’ (Deuteronomy 6:6). Teaching our children is an integral part of our daily lives and it takes place in the family – the foundational unit of society where we model for our children how we want them to live.
However good the formal education opportunities, it’s nearly always the support, encouragement and interest of parents that ensures that young people choose to pick up the key to success, unlock the door and walk through, with confidence to meet the challenges of life. If the aspirations and hopes of parents and school aren’t in synch, it’s the home environment that usually prevails. There’s a simple reason for this – it’s our parents and our community that define and nurture our identity; it’s where we feel we belong, and so it’s where we want to remain.
Every parent matters, more vitally than governments care to admit. So as well as ensuring that we offer every child an excellent academic education , we also need to give support to parents who can’t, or won’t, offer what their children need most – the support, interest and encouragement of those who love them.