What is a parents’ role in education?

Much has been written about how important parents are to a child’s education, but often the advice is not all that helpful. Here are a few thoughts on the what, how, when, where and why of education that parents might consider.


The press and the education establishment go on about GCSEs, grades, exams and so on as the most important areas for parents to assist their children. A recent research report suggested that children doing Saturday jobs could get lower grades at GCSE. What the report did not mention is that if school students want to learn about dealing with real people in real situations that are relevant to the world of work, such experience is extremely valuable. Parents need to support work experience. Employers complain that young people coming out of school and university are not well equipped in areas such as team working and self-discipline – abilities that may be best learned in real world and not in the classroom.

Another factor in what are the supposed priorities for children is the overemphasis on academic subjects in school. Cut backs in the arts and creative subjects mean that many children are denied important opportunities – both for enjoyment and for learning for the future. The greatest expansion in jobs in recent years has not been in traditional large companies but in the creative and digital sector. I attended a meeting recently at which some graduates complained that they could not get jobs even though they had good degrees. The week before I had attended another meeting at which employers in the creative and digital sector complained that they could not fill vacancies. In a report last year on this sector in the Sussex area one feature was that such companies employed more people with backgrounds in art and design than in the sciences. So how can parents plug the gap being left by many schools?


Assumptions that children now are all tech savvy and therefore learn best via computer are not born out in practice. Students in our college (aged 9-16) are encouraged to learn in any ways that they want. For example, some love to use the computer to learn maths via the Kahn Academy or languages via Duolingo. Others never use the computer for learning. They may use traditional text books and worksheets or they may want time with a tutor to get one-to-one support. And often they help each other in doing projects. Since they have a free choice of learning modes they can be at their most efficient. So parents need always to check with their children their preferred modes of learning.

This can also lead into how students might want to present their work. A few weeks ago a student had the task of writing an essay for English. Instead of the usual linear handwritten piece, he created a website with the material on it. Why not? Others might use visuals to put their ideas across or create in 3D. Some of our students have even printed out their designs on a 3D printer. So for some students access to resources that free up their creativity can be really valuable – while other students are still happy with more linear written material.


There is an unwarranted assumption that children have to take tests and exams by virtue of the year that they are in. The main deadline is the GCSE taken in the summer of Year 11. However the Government’s own research has shown that over 10,000 children every year get worse results at GCSE just because they are summer born. This problem starts earlier. Summer born children ar more likely to be classified as having special needs when they are in primary school. Most frightening is that both teachers and parents often underestimate the capabilities of summer born children.

The reality is that anyone can sit a GCSE any time they like. It is open to parents of summer born children to delay entry to GCSE if they are concerned about grades.


The government tells parents that a child not in a classroom is not learning. Parents are being fined for taking their children out of school to engage in valuable learning such as traveling. We have a 14-year-old girl at our College whose parents went for some months to India and she went with them. It was a great learning experience to live in another culture.  She kept up her academic studies whilst out there and was able to Skype in every week to the College to discuss her learning activities with her group and consult with tutors.

Learning can take place anywhere. Indeed in our research we have identified at least 55 different modes and contexts for learning for children. Only one of these is the classroom and over the last 15 years of our College’s existence no student has ever asked us to create a classroom environment.


The most important question to address is – why undertake specific educational activities? What education is for is a central factor in any parent’s decisions about their role with their children. Schooling is promoting a way of life of tests when real learning is to prepare young people for the tests of life. Parents have been shown to be crucial in influencing children’s values and beliefs about the world. Fundamentally parents need to support children to be able to lead a good life in the future – and ‘goodness’ is not created through exam passing.


by Dr. Ian Cunningham
Chair of board of governors at Self Managed Learning College