The extent to which parents are invested in their children’s learning is often cited as one of many key factors helping to drive high standards in Irish education.
However, there’s also a flip side: high aspirations may, in some cases, be driving elevated levels of stress and anxiety among pupils in the classroom.
It is one of many findings in a landmark longitudinal study undertaken by UCD’ school of education, which is following 4,000 children across almost 200 primary schools. The study also sought the views of principals, teachers and parents.
Most parents reported that they loved getting feedback from teachers and remarked on the impact that constructive feedback from teachers had on their children and their engagement in school.
However, tensions over children’s performance are vividly illustrated through the prism of standardised tests, such as those often referred to in primary schools as the Drumondras.
The scores allow teachers to determine how their class performed relative to their peers nationally; this information is usually shared at parent-teacher meetings or via report cards at the end of year.
Parents had mixed feelings about the tests: some felt they were useful to schools to assess where children were in their learning; others reported that their children were worried or anxious about them, sometimes to the point of feigning illness.
“I think they’re too young to be putting pressure on them with tests and everything all the time, no,” said one parent.
Another said: “He hates them [tests], he hates them, if you tell he has a test or anything he tries to dodge school.”
Teachers, meanwhile, said they tried to highlight the importance of developing a climate in their classrooms where children were not afraid to make mistakes.
However, they noticed children’s stress around tests tended to increase as they progressed through primary school, and most seem to agree on the source of this anxiety.
Most teachers (61 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed that parents of children in their class were stressed about their children’s performance in standardised tests, with about half of teachers perceiving that the children in the class were also worried about their performance.
While almost all principals considered teachers in their schools to be calm and confident during standardised test periods, almost a quarter of agreed that teachers felt pressure from parents to raise test scores.
Most of the time the pressure on this front came from parents rather than the teacher, they said, something that was especially evident in more middle-class schools.
“It shouldn’t cause any stress or anxiety,” said one principal, interviewed as part of the study. “And I think maybe some parents read too much into that, into the test scores. Too much into that rather than looking at the whole child.”
“Maybe more parental anxiety more than ... children or staff,” said another, when asked about stress levels linked to the tests. “It’s more parental expectations and then maybe explaining the results to parents afterwards if they feel that the result is different than their expectation.”
Yet, the study – commissioned by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment – also shows the very positive role parents’ high level of engagement has.
It shows evidence of positive relationships between teachers and students, as well as families and schools, with trust and provision of feedback to parents enabling them to support their own children’s learning.
Parents of younger children, especially, expressed strong preferences for homework as an important element of education to reinforce learning and described “positive family dynamics” when doing homework. (However, these positive attitudes declined as children progressed through primary school as children showed more resistance towards it.)
Overall, the results show there is much to be proud of and to celebrate in how children are progressing at primary school – but the findings will also help direct attention to where are concerns, how issues around testing might be reconsidered, and whether this can feed into the continual redevelopment of the primary curriculum.