I like paradoxes. So here’s one.
How come less than half of all school leavers have both English and Maths GCSE at grade C or higher, yet my daughter, now at university, tells me her experience of the state education system was excellent?
These education statistics are astonishingly awful. In fact they remind me of our appalling family statistics. Nearly half of all our teenagers are not living with both natural parents. the net result is that, according to Social Trends Institute, we have the highest rate of family instability in the developed world.
Of course there’s the flip side to these negatives, which is that half of our teens do get their English and Maths GCSEs and half of our teens do live in stable two parent households.
Increasingly, this looks like a nation divided between those who get educated and those who don’t, between those who experience family stability and those who don’t.
Having taken our children through a variety of different schools, our own family experience has been of mostly excellent teaching at primary, secondary and sixth form levels. If the issue is not the teaching – and it still could be – then what is it that happens behind the scenes at home that is making the difference?
When my daughter first praised her own education, my first thought was that she was benefiting from the interaction between home and school life. Even though she moved school half way through her GCSEs, she’s always had supportive parents who encourage and challenge her.
I make the assumption that almost all parents want to do their best for their children. Whether two parents or one, rich or poor, all parents want to be the best they can be. But there’s no doubt it’s a whole lot harder with one pair of hands or less resources. The fact is that stability gives parents the capacity to support. The government’s own research shows how children in lone parent homes are more likely to face educational difficulties.
But family breakdown happens across the social spectrum. There must be more to why children from ‘middle class’ families seem to do better.
It turns out there’s a whole new angle that I hadn’t even considered in this. A fascinating new study in the forthcoming Journal of Marriage and Family. “Does Educational Similarity Drive Parental Support,” suggests that fathers’ level of education plays a big role in the support they give children.
Brett Ory and colleagues at Erasmus University Rotterdam looked at 1629 Dutch families with adult children and asked them how much advice and interest they had received from their parents in the previous three months. Now bearing in mind that this involves adult children aged from 20 to 45, this might not reflect their exact experience when they were still teenagers living at home. But I suspect if they’re getting input from their parents now as young adults, they were probably getting at least as much input when they were at school.
Here’s what they found
- Dads tended to give advice to their adult children only if they themselves were better educated, whereas mums tended to give advice to all and sundry regardless of their own level of education.
- Dads also tended to show more interest when both parent and adult child were better educated, whereas mums tended to show more interest when their children were better educated, but regardless of their own level of education.
What on earth is going on here?!
If there’s a difference between ‘advice’ and ‘interest’, it’s that one is more about talking and the other is more about listening. When children are at school, having parents who listen is clearly an important factor, but probably more for emotional well-being than what they do. It’s advice and encouragement and envisioning that gets children motivated to work hard.
Whereas mums tend to give advice whoever they are and whatever their background, dads are less willing to stick their oar in unless they are better educated. Maybe this is an issue of competence. Allow me to drift for a moment into the anecdotal world of pop psychology. Listen to two women talking. The conversation will tend to ebb and flow around a subject in a way that each shows rapport with the other. Listen to two men talking. The conversation will tend to be a series of reports to one another on what they know.
So maybe dads will only advise their children when they feel confident that they know what they are talking about. And when they do, the child feels more motivated and inspired to work hard and not mess around.
Smart dads, smart kids?