Parents and schools: a partnership from birth

I recently read Paul Tough’s excellent book, ‘Whatever It Takes’, the story of Geoffrey Canada, the pioneering Harlem principal who created the Harlem Children’s Zone, which has revolutionised the life chances of thousands of some of New York’s poorest and most disadvantaged children. It is an absolutely fascinating – and inspiring – read, which demonstrates how with determination and an uncompromising vision, almost anything is possible, and I thoroughly recommend it. What particularly struck me, however, was how Geoffrey Canada realised at an early stage that in order for his plan to work, he needed to engage with parents and their children at the very earliest stage of their lives. Parenting is really important, he realised, but parents could not necessarily be expected to parent all on their own.

The Harlem Children’s Zone came about in part because of the influence of research such as that done by Hart and Risley in the early 1980’s. They conducted ethnographic linguistic studies of the interactions in 42 families with newborn babies in Kansas City and were able to make a sharp distinction between the size of the vocabularies employed in families with professional parents and those with parents on welfare. By the age of 3, children in families with professional parents had a vocabulary of around 1,100 words, while children in families with parents on welfare had a vocabulary of only around 525 words. The IQs of these children corresponded very closely to these vocabularies: the average IQ of children in professional families was 117, while the children in families on welfare had an average IQ of only 79. The researchers were able to go further, and identify that the children’s vocabularies were directly related to the number and type of utterances to which they were exposed in their families.

Geoffrey Canada needed the parents of children in Harlem to know that they could increase the IQ – and life chances – of their children by talking to them more often, and in different ways, and so he set up Baby College, sending out staff to recruit parents (or parents-to-be), to get them to hear what they needed to do. He recognised that parents cannot be expected to know everything; they need other people – society, if you will – to help share with them the experience and knowledge that we are gaining all the time about how to help our children.

It is very easy in today’s world to victimise parents and blame them for all their children’s ills. But parenting is a hard enough skill – if not a way of life – without the added pressure of constant blame. Parents do not need more pressure. What they do need is help, support, guidance, and a sense that we are all in this together. We have a collective responsibility to bring up our children, and we all need to work to make this happen.

Geoffrey Canada understood this, and has transformed the lives of poor children in Harlem as a result. It is an inspiring story, and we can all learn from it. Together – schools and parents – we are stronger – and our children cannot fail but to benefit from this.


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