Do teachers make better parents? Do children of teachers have better chances of working and beating the system?
This might sound like a provocative question – particularly if you are not a teacher – but it’s an interesting one.
The answer is that teachers do make ‘better’ parents. Most tellingly, the results of a comprehensive study by the Geary Institute in UCD (www.geary.ucd.ie) reveal that mothers who are teachers have a greater direct influence on their children’s education than fathers who are teachers.
In Ireland, children of teachers get much more out of our education system than children of other (including better-off) professionals. Teachers themselves earn 25 per cent more than the median income, yet the real payback for teachers is in the incomes and opportunities of their children.
In many ways, from a family perspective at least, teachers are the great sacrificers.
Foregoing income themselves, through their attention to education at home, they give their children an invaluable head start. This is particularly the case when the mother is a teacher.
The significance of that head start is now becoming apparent. Evidence from all over the English-speaking world suggests that the single biggest factor affecting children’s chances in school is not income, but parental participation.
There are, in essence, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parents. This might appear self-evident, but it is amazing how simple language has been banished from public debate.
Instead we are treated to a barrage of pieties about income inequality, poor facilities and the like. While all these are contributory factors, it is the home environment, created, fostered and moulded by parents, which is the crucial factor.
Take the three economics professors at the Geary Institute in UCD, where this pioneering work is being done. All three were born and bred in Ballyfermot – reinforcing the idea that family counts more than other factors.
There are three reasons why these observations are important for the country.
The state relies on the brains of our people.
If we can get the most out of all our children, society will be much better off, not only in terms of economics, but in terms of crime, health and general quality of life.
Second, starting early is crucial. American research shows that one dollar spent on intervention in the education of a four-year-old is seven times more productive than the same amount spent on a 14-year-old.Evidence from psychology and neuroscience also shows a reinforcing mechanism whereby skills beget skills, motivation begets motivation and failure begets failure.
Irrespective of income, gaps in educational ability emerge early and widen. So it is crucial – as the Jesuits said – to get them young.
Third, last week the Central Statistics Office (CSO) revealed that the biggest change in Irish society over the past ten years is the number of women at work.
Close to 60 per cent of women are working, as opposed to 43 per cent ten years ago. Many of these are mothers and, while they are better educated than their own mothers, they might not have the time to juggle homework, housework and keeping the sales targets on track.
These three factors argue for a significant change in our education system.
What is the point, for example, in getting rid of university fees if the majority of those who get that far come from families who can afford to send their kids to college in the first place? The real advantage in this would be if a lot of kids from poor backgrounds thrived in pre-school, primary school and secondary school so as to be in a position to go to college.
In Ireland, we have made enormous progress in this regard in the past few years, with university attendance almost doubling in 15 years, but there is still the problem of persistent underachievement in certain areas.
So if Dad doesn’t care about little Tommy’s maths and is more concerned about watching Celtic, or if mum is too knackered to contemplate reading with little Shannon, what should the state do?
Quite simply, the state has to invest more in the education of these children to replace lack of parental investment, because it is the state and society that will ultimately have to pay for the violence, crime and welfare dependence of these kids when they grow up.
Again, evidence from the United States (see the Perry Pre-school Project, www.geary.ucd.ie) shows that early intervention in pre-schools for poor kids and more active teaching of the very young yields enormous benefits.
Taking control of a toddler’s and young child’s education, telling them they are smart, encouraging them, motivating them, allowing them to use and develop their brains is eight times more beneficial than trying to sort things out later with programmes such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, Fas job courses or prisoner rehabilitation programmes.
If we are to go down the road of more and more women in the workforce, and accept the CSO’s findings that only 1 per cent of Irish men describe themselves as full-time house husbands, there will be less time for helping kids with homework.
There will be less parental influence and among the underclass, no one will tell them that if they help their kids today, the benefits to the whole family in 15 years’ time will be enormous.
We should plough more state resources into education of both children and their parents, explaining that we are all in this together and the earlier we get the kids on the right track the better. This demands a revolution in the Department of Education.
At the moment we seem to be beguiled by fourth-level education – masters degrees and doctoral programmes and the like. This may well be necessary, but I suspect the enthusiasm is also being driven by seeing it as a product to be flogged to Chinese, Indians and others.
It is now time to use the education system actively as a part of social policy and, as away of preventing crime and disillusionment in 20 years’ time. After all, this is about the future of the country and it’s far too serious to be left to the sons and daughters of today’s teachers alone.