Guest Blog: Why it’s Important to Know an Octopus Can Walk on Land

18th November 2017

This is a guest blog from Dr Janet Goodall, an academic at Bath University whose research focuses on parental engagement. Janet delivered our 2017 Annual Lecture.

"We have an achievement gap in the UK, which is based not on ability but on background: children from wealthier backgrounds do better in our system.  It’s a simple thing to say – and a very difficult thing to solve.

We do know some things about solving the problem, and one of them is that the solution doesn’t lie in the classroom.  Schools and staff have done a very good job in narrowing the gap – but the gains that can be made in school have, for the most part, been made.  We need to stop looking in the wrong place for the solution, and look where we can make a difference.

That means we need to be working with parents, and we need to be thinking about the home learning environment.  I don’t mean getting parents into school (remember, the answer isn’t there) and I don’t really mean getting parents to help with homework.  Both of those are good things but we’re already doing that, and we’re supporting a lot of parents – but not, perhaps, the parents who most need support.

If we want to help narrow the achievement gap, we need to help all parents know how to support learning outside of school – in the home, in the car, wherever they are with their children.

407405686_05efc3d5da.jpgWith younger children, that can mean letting parents know how important it is to read stories over, and over and over again, to support early literacy; how important stirring a cake and sprinkling decorations can be for developing the muscles that will help the child write, how important noticing print and numbers in daily life, and talking about them, are for being school ready.  Even with teenagers, we know that fifteen minutes of conversation a week with parents, about social media, TV shows or movies, is correlated to how engaged those young people are with reading. 

It’s about letting parents know how important they are to their children’s learning, and working with them to support that learning.

Of course, that means a sea change: schools, and their staff, have to realise how important learning outside the home is, and work to support it.  That’s a new idea for a lot of people in schools, and we need to think carefully about how we do it.

octopus.jpgAnd that brings me to the octopus in the title.

In David Attenborough’s series, The Hunt, he showed us that an octopus could drag itself out of the water and across land to the next rock pool.  How many thousands – perhaps millions – of parents were answering questions about how far an octopus could go on land, the next morning on the way to school?  That’s a prime example of the home learning environment, and it’s the sort of thing we can all support – and that we need to support, if we want to give all of our young people the best chance at life".