Today is Global Day of Parents, named as such by the United Nations as a mark of appreciation for the commitment of parents towards their children. Let’s not forget, of course, that parents, extended families and communities are the first teachers that children experience, and the dominant influence in their lives throughout their schooling years and beyond.
The importance of parents for education is obvious from the direct links between people’s family background and their probability of success in and through education. Genetic factors, wealth and family networks are important for children’s education outcomes.
Beyond these, as many parents reading this blog will no doubt attest, engagement with and support to children’s schooling; exposure to cultural activities and availability of educational materials, such as books; and biases or stereotypes, such as unequal expectations for girls and boys, also matter tremendously for educational success.
Let’s look deeper at some of the direct links between the home environment parents set up, and between family background and success in education.
Whether or not a child has a supportive home environment that is, for example, free from violence, affects children’s ability to pursue and focus on schooling.
Parental capacity to engage in their children’s education depends strongly on their own literacy and education awareness, suggesting a strong need for adult literacy and intergenerational learning emphasis. There is substantial persistence of educational outcomes over generations. Contrary to expectations, education can often be a key factor in slowing down intergenerational mobility.
At the basic education level, parental engagement can include involvement in school management committees or parent associations, interactions with teachers, and support for school and homework.
At higher levels of education, parents may provide specific advice on subject choices and preparation for higher education, vocational education or links to employment.
For some of these responsibilities as regards their children’s education, parents can be held accountable, as our last report showed. While students do take on much of the responsibility for their attendance, effort and behaviour as they get older, when younger, it does fall squarely on their parents’ shoulders. Child protection services and other accountability mechanisms, such as truancy laws or parent-school meetings are required when parents are unwilling or unable to fulfil their responsibilities.
Besides actions directly related to their own children’s education, parental preferences and decision-making can have a strong influence on education policy. The most motivated parents and parent groups can influence education decisions, such as support for different types of education provision, curricular content, and public expenditure allocation decisions. For example, in the United States, they pushed publishers to revise textbooks that strongly distorted climate change facts.
Some parents play strong roles holding teachers to account, as we featured in this blog on Honduras, for instance. However, since parent interest groups often have narrower interests, including using schooling to give their children access to the most desirable peer groups to signal their exclusiveness, their political efforts can be at odds with the goals of equitable financing, integration or social mixing.
Finally, parents play a key role in financing education. In most countries, the financing is directed to the education sector through taxation. But in many countries, and particularly the poorest, as the 2017/8 GEM Report showed, parents are bearing the brunt, covering at least one-third of education costs themselves.
As we recognise the hugely important role that parents play, and the heavy responsibilities on their shoulders for their children’s education, we should, at the same time, start to think how they can be supported to be successful. Community support, accessible and understandable information on education, social care policies or cash transfers can help parents fulfil their responsibilities towards their children’s schooling and reward the efforts parents are putting in.