The research base is clear. Parental involvement in a child's schooling between the ages of 7 and 16 is a more powerful force than family background, size of family and level of parental education. Conversely, educational failure is increased by lack of parental interest in schooling. However, not all types of involvement are equal in their impact. 'At home good parenting' has the most significant positive effect on children's achievement, yet schools spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to encourage parents to attend meetings in school when their efforts to engage parents might be better deployed in supporting them at home.
As Professor Charles Desforges noted in his comprehensive literature review for the Department for Education (as now is) in 2003, "Research affords a clear model of how parental involvement works. In essence, parenting has its influence indirectly through shaping the child's self concept as a learner and through setting high aspirations."
Gareth Wynne, associate director at independent charity Futurelab argues that a different conversation between schools, teachers, parents and, crucially, students is required with knock-on effects for the curriculum.
Time and time again, school leaders tell me that their holy grail is to develop independent, motivated and resilient learners who have the skills to both access and succeed with the curriculum and to be productive citizens. How therefore might we better support parents to help their children develop these skills?
The first step is for schools to clearly articulate the type of skills and competencies they want their alumni to have developed by the time they leave school, together with a clear model for acquisition and progression and to make these explicit to both parents and learners. Secondly, schools need to provide practical ideas and tools for how parents can support these to be developed in the 85% of time a child spends at home and in the community (on average only 15% is spent in school). Let's get away from parents saying they can't help with algebra homework and have more productive conversations about how they might support the development of, for example, problem-solving skills, in the home. Thirdly, schools need to think differently about how they use time and space to support their students to develop and utilise these skills. This is likely to lead to curriculum innovation in many schools.
Futurelab believe all young people should benefit from a rich, futures-oriented and technologically-enabled education. As a result, it is developing a network of Futurelab Hub schools which will help schools to use time within the curriculum to support the development of key skills such as independent learning, problem-solving, critical thinking, media and digital literacy, resilience and collaborative team working. Employers value these skills and they are also required to achieve success in the school curriculum - be it the English Baccalaureate, or more vocational subjects.
Futurelab will support schools to make more use of enquiry-based learning. This is an approach characterised by 'learning through doing' where the child takes an active role in learning, by engaging with challenges or scenarios that call for sustained analysis and enquiry. It is a distinctive approach to teaching and learning which takes seriously the knowledge, ideas, interests and skills that students themselves bring into schools.
There are a number of key characteristics to enquiry-based learning (adapted from work by Kahn and O'Rourke in 2004)
An example of a good enquiry question would be 'will computers ever be smarter than humans?' There is no right or wrong answer and students will need to undertake research and weigh up available evidence and form an opinion and then present their thinking in a way that is engaging for others.
The role of the teacher is critical to the success of this approach - they become more of a choreographer of learning than a knowledge transmitter and they utilise different pedagogical approaches. A seminal moment always arises in an enquiry project where the student realises that they know more/different content knowledge about the area they are researching than the teacher. This is a moment that the teacher should celebrate as it enables very different conversations around learning to take place, one where the student's opinion is really valued and where they are seen as an equal participant. Students often say this is the first time that they think that an adult has truly engaged with and valued their opinion.
Some schools are seeking to work with local businesses (for example, around green technologies) where they can offer students enquiry-based learning around 'authentic real world problems'. The business is genuinely interested in new insights the students may generate through their research which could help them solve their issue. Entrepreneurial skills are vital for both employers and the economy and these opportunities provide fertile ground for honing them. Once again the research base is unequivocal. Well-designed, enquiry-based learning increases attainment and students learn better when they can pursue their own lines of enquiry and work on open-ended projects.
There is international evidence to back up the claims. Hong Kong's students are high performers in Maths, English and Science. Kenneth Chen, Hong Kong under-secretary for education said in a Times Educational Supplement article in January 2011, "Much of the success was due to a curriculum introduced over the past decade which emphasised 21st -century skills such as 'learning how to learn'". What about the role of technology in supporting learning? Technology use can make a difference in educational performance but only if the learner is duly equipped with the right set of competencies, skills and attitudes. In their absence, no matter how intense the technology use, the expected benefits will not materialise.
Futurelab is seeking to help students to develop key 21st century skills and to encourage their schools to make more imaginative use of technology, which supports skills acquisition and development, in order to produce better educational outcomes for all. But this is not enough by itself, parents are a key part of the process of setting high expectations around the importance of 21st century skills and their active participation in learning conversations is critical.