Whose Responsibility?

by | Feb 1, 2022 | Teaching Struggling Readers

It came as a shock to see a letter in the Sunday Times demanding that parents be held to account if their children do not learn to read at school. I had thought that we were making progress on such attitudes, but apparently, they are alive and well.


The issue is important because it raises questions about how education works in our society. Is it ultimately the responsibility of parents, or schools? Or is it a partnership?

Many teachers will know parents who are comfortable to rely heavily on the education system, even on basic matters such as standards of behaviour or managing children’s time on social media. At the extreme end of the continuum, some parents seem to abdicate all responsibility for their children. But let’s be clear, this is a very small minority.

On the other hand, we have parents who decide, for a range of reasons, to home school their children. These parents assume full responsibility for organising their children’s education, from basic maths to socialisation experiences through sports and culture. The children’s outcomes depend a great deal on the skills, resources and commitment of the parents – but in my experience, most do a pretty good job.

Between these two extremes, we have the vast majority of parents, trying to support their children in partnership with the school. They try to make sure that their child arrives on time, with the correct equipment; that homework is completed; that cultural capital is built through visits to museums and art galleries, nature walks, or additional music lessons. And, of course, within this group, there is wide variation in access to resources, time and abilities. But, without a doubt, most parents are trying to do their best for their children. Then we have teachers raising questions like this on Twitter:

“Is the education of a child ultimately the responsibility of parents or teachers? I, for one, believe it’s ultimately my fault if my child doesn’t learn what she needs to learn.”

“Why should accountability not be shared?”

So, what happens when a supportive and involved parent finds that their young child is not succeeding at reading?

A lot of parents don’t find it easy to question schools about their child’s lack of progress. They don’t want to be seen as pushy. They are reluctant to be seen as not trusting the teacher’s expertise. Ideally, the question should lead to reflection on why the child is not learning. Unfortunately, all too often, it becomes a situation of the teacher suggesting that the child is not yet ready and given time ‘it will all just click’. A common fallback strategy for schools is to ask if there are problems at home. When the lack of progress can no longer be concealed or fobbed off, finally the child is given a disability label (if they are lucky) to account for the lack of progress. If they are unlucky, they will be labelled as a behaviour problem, increasing the chances of later exclusion.

Sometimes it does seem as if schools will blame anything but the teaching.

Schools are being funded, and teachers are being paid – supposedly for their expertise – but yet the responsibility falls on parents when the school’s preferred methods don’t work, or teachers don’t actually know how to help. Children are at school for at least 11,000 hours by the end of their compulsory education, but how long does it take to teach a child to read? And if trained teachers don’t know how to help, why should untrained parents be expected to solve the problem instead?

Who is disadvantaged when children don’t learn to read?

The very people who are being blamed.

The parents who can’t afford to outsource their child’s teaching.

The parents going to endless school meetings trying to get answers, but implicitly or overtly being seen as the problem.

The children who go through the anguish of failing to learn something that they see their peers mastering. The children whose education is hampered because not ‘learning to read’ means that they are unable to ‘read to learn’. It’s no secret that 20% of children arrive at secondary school reading well behind their age – and this figure rises to 40% for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

To place the responsibility onto the family absolves the school of the responsibility to teach so that the child learns. In the words of the late, great Zig Engelmann: “. . . if the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

It really is as simple as that.

Up Next : one parent’s experience of having to fight for their child to learn to read.

You may also be interested in:

Can’t Read, Won’t Read: Part One

There is Hope

Can Reading Problems Affect Mental Health?

Does Phonics Help or Hinder Comprehension?


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