Improving literacy means a book – or an iPad – at bedtime, researchers say | Literacy

Bev Wong, a single mother from Brixton, south London, would never have taken her teenage daughters to visit a university like Oxford. It wasn’t just that she and other moms in her community didn’t believe elite universities wanted black kids from public schools. They also couldn’t afford to take public transport to get there.

But after being approached at her local church, Wong became a member of Parent Power, a program run by the prestigious King’s College London and community charity Citizens UK. The goal of the project was to listen to what deterred underrepresented parents from encouraging their children to attend selective colleges, and then form groups of parents to talk to others and campaign for fair conditions in the education of their children.

The first thing Wong’s group did was write to Oxford University. “People like me don’t have the networks or the money, but don’t think we don’t want the same things,” she says. “All the parents I talk to have big aspirations for their kids. They just don’t know who to turn to with questions.

After hearing from Wong’s parent group, Oxford University sent a coach to pick them up for an open day. And so many local parents and teenagers signed up that some had to be turned away.

After that, the group reached out to Cambridge, but this time they didn’t just ask for a coach, they said they also wanted to meet black students their teenagers could relate to and have hands-on activities.

Bev Wong, a member of a Parent Power group in south London, has arranged for a coach at Oxford University. So many local people signed up, some had to be turned away. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Wong says: “When we heard from Oxford, we were like, ‘Wow, just a letter from us did this!’ The second time we had a plan of what we needed.

For years, efforts to expand access to top universities have focused solely on reaching disadvantaged children in school. But the Brilliant Club, a charity working on social mobility, decided that real change would only happen if universities also reached out to parents. The charity has set up Parent Power groups in Cardiff, Fenland and Knowsley and is planning more.

Anne-Marie Canning, the charity’s new CEO, remembers her mother being the go-to person at the Asda supermarket where she worked for any colleagues who had questions about their children’s college. Canning’s vision is to have a network of grassroots working class ambassadors like her mother across the country.

Social mobility experts say this approach shouldn’t stop at universities and if ministers are serious about closing the achievement gap they need to get parents on board at home. They argue that parents are the missing link in the government’s forthcoming schools white paper. This should set a new target of ensuring that 90% of children leaving primary school have achieved the expected levels in reading, writing and mathematics by 2030. In 2019, this figure was 65%.

Susie Whigham, acting CEO of the Brilliant Club, says the government should encourage parents from disadvantaged backgrounds to be more engaged. “There are things parents can do like reading to their child, which can have a significant impact if it becomes a daily routine. But it must be communicated in a way that recognizes the pressures parents face.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said: ‘I think the government has a real opportunity to seize the nettle by encouraging schools to develop parental engagement plans. Otherwise, I’m afraid we won’t see much change in literacy and numeracy levels. »

Elliot Major is leading a research project assessing the backgrounds of children born at the turn of the millennium who ended up with less than a 4 (a former C grade) in the GCSE of English and Maths. Researchers found that three-quarters of children who struggled to pass language tests at age three failed to do well (Grade 4) in math and English at age 16. He says that means they will have trouble reading a train timetable or understanding a payslip.

He calls for a public campaign on the importance of parents spending 20 minutes a day reading with their children. “Schools are not a strong enough force to tackle the country’s shockingly high rates of illiteracy and illiteracy,” he says, adding that, at a minimum, it’s “absolutely essential” for parents to read to their children. children in the early years.

Becky Francois
Becky Francis: “Parents have often had a negative experience of school themselves. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity that focuses on overcoming social inequalities, says her research has shown that involving parents can lead to four-month progress over the course of a year for students. But the catch is that there’s no clear consensus on what actually works to attract parents. “We’ve tested several approaches, but the consistent message is that it’s really hard,” she admits.

On an engagement program he piloted, participation quickly declined among parents from lower socioeconomic groups, while middle-class parents continued to show up. She admits that’s a problem: Reaching out to parents risks giving the sharp-elbowed middle class an extra edge and widening the achievement gap even further.

She says, “These parents have often had a negative experience of school themselves and they find them intimidating places.”

The principal of a town center primary school, who asked not to be named, said: ‘Parents who live in poverty often did not have this support when they were children.

His school offers underprivileged families a loan of iPads after midterm so they can access online books purchased by the school. She says: “We will be booking parent workshops again, but attendance is generally low. We have never been able to solve this problem. She says some of the parents at her school cannot read English and may not be literate in their native language either, which makes it much more difficult to encourage them to read stories to their children.

Research by the National Literacy Trust has found that many children live in homes without books and that one in 11 children in the poorest households does not own even a single book.

Liberty Venn, founder of the charity Children’s Book Project, says poverty is increasingly a factor: “If you have to choose between feeding your children, buying new school shoes or paying for heating, you will do well course a swerve down the aisle of books. Tesco. »

Venn’s charity aims to distribute 250,000 nearly new books to children in the country’s most disadvantaged primary schools this year.

Chris Dyson
Chris Dyson, headmaster of Parklands Primary School in Leeds, is using new approaches to engage parents. Photography: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Chris Dyson, headmaster of Parklands School, one of the most deprived primary schools in Leeds, says persistence is key. Many of his parents have “really bad” memories of their own time at school. When he took over, he says he invited all the parents to hear his plans and bought 80 donuts from Marks & Spencer as an incentive. Only a handful showed up. But he continued to invite them and buy donuts, and before the pandemic, as many as 150 parents showed up for his weekly assembly “while singing, while dancing.”

“It’s a matter of perseverance,” he says. “And if you do it right, the word passes.”

He has other ways of bringing families. The school runs a cooking club where children and parents can cook together. He is so popular that he now opens school for the club during the holidays. “They bring home a chicken hunter who will feed their family of five for a fiver and they think that’s great,” he says.

As a result, parents are now signing up for workshops on how to help their child with reading or math, and training to improve their own lives, such as interview skills.

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