Any foreign-to-the-UK parent will not be surprised at all by the recent CentreForum Report on white British pupils falling behind at school.
British working class parents, I know, simply do not do anything with their children and do not understand why they should. They just stare at us when we say that in our countries parents have to work with their children. There are several homework assignments every day and all tests have to be shown to the parents so that they can work on the mistakes on a regular basis. Here in Britain, we never see anything like that, which is hugely frustrating.
Only the other day I talked to my Chinese friend, who said the same and was shocked as in her part of China, as in my home country and everywhere else I know, parents have to see each test, sign that they have seen it, and work on the mistakes with their child. In addition, they have to have curriculum books. It is a must, for every subject. Poor families get them for free in Eastern Europe but others have to buy them. They are not cheap but are compulsory.
Parents’ evenings are often an open forum, all at once, so parents are named and shamed if their child’s homework is not done or the children are bad at school in any way. Parents come out blushing.
Here it took me four years to find out what worksheet books I should get, as the school thought it was not good for the children to do any work other than that at school.
I have foreign parents of children just starting school come to me – parents of the kids I worked with and say – “What on earth, is this? I never know what my child is doing, how he is doing, what test marks he gets or what mistakes he makes. There are no books and almost no homework…I don’t know what to do. Where can I get curriculum books if there are any at all?” They are in shock. Believe me! Now I tell them what to buy in W H Smiths. Schools never tell you.
Abroad, homework is set on a daily basis in each subject, separately. We low-paid foreign parents get into debt to buy books or pay for music lessons. Quite a few of us foreign parents have to pay for private tuition, too, as many of us speak little English ourselves. We almost never go out.
I saw a Somali working-class woman the other day. Her English is better now, but was very bad until recently. They have four kids. She said her head was spinning with financial difficulties. OK, she gets lots of benefits for those children but it all goes on the kids and they pay for private lessons. There are tons of books all over the house. Her eldest is in a grammar school. Others are to follow, she hopes. She says she constantly goes from child to child checking if all is done, homework from private tuition, worksheets etc. She gives the little ones ticks for what they have done. She went to the market “to try and relax” as their whole life is kids’ education, for years now, every day.
Her friend, a Somali single mum of three, I know well…the same. She works as a carer and also the kids get some private tuition and work daily at home on books she buys for them. She knows that she has no choice. Her eldest is also in a grammar school as he wants to be a surgeon.
These mums also tell me that they encourage their children to play, outside or indoors, to be physically active, to be children but to also know that education has to be attended to at the end of most days.
I know a married couple that come from Pakistan. They were not born here, but are new immigrants. They have two sons who were born here. Mum works in a supermarket on the till. The parents work so hard with the kids. One boy is in a grammar school for boys (hardest to get into). The other knew all the shapes, some adding up, the whole alphabet, and how to read short words etc while at preschool.
My British colleagues used to say, “But the kids are just naturally clever”. I told the mother this and she just laughed. “They are clever, but they also HAVE to work at home with us.” The boy also had private tuition for the eleven-plus, draining all the money the parents earned alongside attending the Islamic school where they also have to excel. They have no option.
Several working class Sri Lankan families I know well (factory workers etc.) are the same. Every penny goes on books, musical instruments, private tuition. Though the kids failed to get into grammar schools, they are still very good academically.
And stories like that are all around me at my kids’ school. A West Indian family of four children started from zero with nothing. The eldest is now at a prestigious medical school and two others are in top state schools. The fourth is studying for the eleven plus. All four play classical instruments. One is grade 8 in ballet and the youngest plays in a small classical music band with my children.The parents spend all their time after work and weekends ferrying them around – lots of sport clubs, music tuition and other activities.
They have a tiny house full of books, like mine. In all the rooms there are piles of books. The mum needs to spend £12 on an item for her health but she cannot afford it. Everything goes on the kids. The parents have not been out on their own or with friends alone for many, many years.
British working class parents are just not used to something like that and do not know what we are talking about. They seem to have never been expected to have a role in their child’s education and most never do, not at all.