Parents’ views on broadening school education

06 December 2019

Why is the Royal Society thinking about our education system?

The Royal Society believes we need a national conversation about how to adapt our education system both to meet the needs of a technological economy and to improve the wellbeing and civic participation of all members of our society. 

Technological changes arising from scientific research are bringing about changes in all aspects of society, including what we learn, what skills we need, and how we interact with and navigate the wider world around us.  

Drawing on its reputation as an independent and considered voice, the Society is taking forward this work through understanding how education is framed by key agencies who have a stake in our education system – including the parents or students currently in schools and FE colleges. 

In 2018-19 the Royal Society commissioned Kantar Public to carry out a research study to explore what parents thought about the post-16 curriculum and how their perceptions influenced their thinking surrounding change. The study showed that although parents are an important influence on their children’s choices and achievements at school, the detail of curriculum content, funding, assessment and teaching often feel opaque to them. 

By focusing on post-16 education, the research offers insight into the educational stage where the UK deviates most from other countries. With no compulsory subjects required in any of the four UK nations and the A-level system that incentivises students to abandon most subjects earlier still, the early specialisation of the UK system is at odds with what is needed for the future: an education system which inspires people to continue to learn, to participate in society, and allows flexibility over future careers. 

Research with parents

To explore this issue, the Society commissioned the market research group Kantar Public to undertake a programme of research, including conversations with over seventy parents from a range of schools and backgrounds, followed by a much larger online panel survey. Of course, we know that ‘parents’ are not a group in isolation. Parents are also teachers, business leaders, employees, politicians and many more – all of whom are crucial to understanding the need for change in the education system, and all of whom we will be engaging with as this project develops. 

Key findings

  1. Parents would like their children to have more opportunities for work experience, with 54% of parents listing a work experience placement as one of their top three features of a reformed 16-18 system
  2. Parents of children over the age of 18 are less likely than those whose children were 11-14 to believe that the current system prepares young people well for adult life
  3. Though supportive of a broader education, parents express concern that in this could result in further increased workload with even greater pressure on their children, if it occurred in the current high stakes assessment context 

Overall, the research found that parents do not have a deep knowledge of the post-16 curriculum or assessment. Most parents rarely discuss post-16 education and choices with their children. Parents failed to mention the importance of acquiring knowledge or becoming ‘well-rounded’. 

Parents raised some concerns about the limited work experience opportunities available in school, particularly for students in the 16-18 range. Though employability was identified as one of the ultimate goals of education, the absence of good quality work experience at this stage was seen as a weakness, and 54% of parents selected work experience in their top three priorities for future reform.

Parents tend to conflate curriculum with assessment. For many parents, education is seen only as a sequence of progressively more difficult examinations to be passed. Yet they are also aware of the heightened demands that the current system places on students to pass exams. Perhaps unsurprisingly given these demands, almost all parents expressed concerns over the effect of the current system on their children’s mental health. 

What happens next?

Parents can see the potential benefits of a broader education, especially when they are able to associate this with greater flexibility both in choosing post-18 options and later in life, and when thinking about how studying a broader range of knowledge and skills could open up more employment opportunities. 

The Royal Society is aware that individuals in many stakeholder groups, from parents to teachers, employers to universities, students themselves to policy-makers, have been speaking about the need for curriculum breadth for quite some time. With a growing evidence base and increasing consensus among stakeholders that this is the right direction for education to move in, the potential for a real positive change in our education system is on the horizon. 

Starting in early 2020 the Society will be producing a series of publications discussing how and why a broad education system is the best possible option for our future, collaborating with thought leaders from across a range of sectors. We are excited to start a new national conversation addressing the future of education, and hope you will join the discussion in the next stage of this project. 

Further reading

Jobs are changing, so should education

Vision for science, mathematics and computing education