Primary and secondary school education in the United Kingdom are mandatory and both are free for all students. All students between the ages of four and sixteen are by law obliged to attend both of these at different stages in their lives depending on their age. Educational success is theoretically determined by nothing other than a student’s age and ability to learn. Before the Education Act 1944 education for those without status and title was limited to the learning of the basic skills they required to carry out their pre determined roles in society. Most of the education was delivered by religious and third sector groups with very little national co-ordination. However, the 1944 Education Act went some way towards creating a more formal and structured education for all students within the system. The Education Act 1944 made secondary school free and obligatory until the age of 15 and this was later raised to 16 in 1972.
The Act had two major aims at its core and they were to improve the country’s economic efficiency by developing the skills of the future work force and to create a more equal society by providing all young people with the opportunity to be educated and where possible and desired, to progress into higher education or into an occupation. The Education Act 1944 was revolutionary in that it leads to a shift from an education determined by an accident of birth to one based on age, aptitude and individual student ability. In theory, this arguably was the birth of Meritocracy, the idea that everyone has equal opportunity to achieve in education regardless of their background.
The role of education in society is of great importance as through the education process young people are socialised into the norms and values of society. Education, universally, is the key to tackling poverty, ignorance and social exclusion. As a result it can be described as a vehicle for change and social prosperity.
The prominent Functionalist sociologist Emile Durkheim famously argued that education promotes social solidarity through learning the social rules of behaviour of a society from one generation to the next. Education also develops all those specialist and most essential skills needed for the progress of individuals and society such as literacy and the ability to reason. It also provides those engaged in it, a suitable role within society that matches their individual unique talents.
The importance of education is not lost on Somali parents as they like any other group of parents would like to see their children succeed academically and professionally. During many community meetings around the UK, Somali parents have expressed their desire to see themselves and their children succeed in the UK through the attainment of educational qualifications and professional employment. They also made it clear that they want to integrate into wider society in order to provide their children with the best possible opportunities that this country has to offer. However, most of the Somali parents feel that some in school and wider social factors are hampering their children from succeeding academically.
In school factors are factors that are directly related to the schools and which takes place within the schools themselves. Among the most complained of in school issues are a lack of leadership, poor teaching standards, lack of permanent teachers, low teacher expectations and in some extreme cases, institutional racism. One parent argued that what makes the situation worst is that most parents know their children are been failed by a combination of in school factors and this is compounded by other societal ills such as poverty and poor housing which makes learning at home even more difficult and unlikely. One parent went further by suggesting that most schools attended by Somali students in Bristol are failure factories aimed at only teaching students the most minimal in order to maintain the racial and class status quo in this country.
This parent described the schools as a production line which was producing illiterate and unmotivated children who possess all the wrong priorities in life. What added insult to injury for one parent from Bristol was the fact that some schools employ token Somali support staff who they feel are unrepresentative and unqualified to be working with their children. “They think by sending me a young Somali person who is no older than my own children they can tick the parental engagement box. They can’t because I do not want to speak to this young token Somali school worker because they know nothing about my child’s education. I want to meet the teachers and not these buffers in between,” one parent said to the amusement of others.
Parents have conveyed their worries of institutional racism within predominantly Somali schools many times over the years and despite assurances they are not convinced that their children are getting a fair education. Many point to poor career and year 9 subject options advice which appear to steer Somali students towards the more vocational courses and professions than the academic ones. They also point to the lack of Somali and ethnic teachers in schools especially at senior management levels despite the majority of students been of these backgrounds.
What makes the education process most unfair for parents is that they believe large class sizes, poor student behaviour and a box ticking approach to learning and teaching has made their children’s future less bright and with planned government spending cuts in education most fear things will only get worst.
Of course, with education spending cuts things will only get more difficult as public policy will be more directed towards reducing the national deficit than tackling poverty or the other causes of educational inequalities. In addition, Continuous Professional Development budgets for school teachers and leaders is likely to be savagely decreased along with funding for key support workers within some of the most challenging schools in the city of Bristol which most Somali parents children attend. Furthermore, adult education and life long learning has already been earmarked for substantial cuts so much so that ESOL classes that were once free and easily available to most parents will now become more like an application for a place on a sponsored PhD at Oxford or Cambridge University.
However, despite all of the mentioned issues above, parents need to understand one thing and one thing only. This very important thing is that ultimately their children’s educational success lies with them and not just with the schools. Parents openly and regularly complain about in school factors such as low and discriminatory teacher expectations, institutional racism, poor teaching, and too many supply teachers but whilst they have no control over some of these issues, they can easily address the others through active parental involvement in their children’s schools and home lives.
In an ideal world educational success would be based on the principals of meritocracy and all students in every school in the country would be provided with an equal opportunity to succeed and pursue their dreams. However, we do not live in an ideal world and it is about to become less ideal and equal as the effects of the recession is going to be felt more sharply as more key public sector workers will start to lose their jobs in the coming few months. Educational bias is rife and they are brought on by many different things such as sex, race and class but it is important to realise that this bias which leads to great inequality and differential educational attainment among students will exist for the foreseeable future. Many pledges and attempts have been made to make the system more meritocratic but the problems at the heart of the issue such as poverty are not getting any easier to solve as the gap between the rich and poor in society widens further and more rapidly.
The honest fact is that Somali parent’s need to start becoming the changes they want to see in their children. Somali adults and parents are statistically among the most economically inactive in the UK and they are the most represented in all the social benefit registers from Housing benefits to Jobseekers allowance which in turn forces their children onto free school meals offered to those children whose parents are economically inactive for whatever reason or are not earning enough to be able to meet the school meal costs of their children. Various research findings have linked poor educational attainment with free school meals and the latest figures from the Poverty Site, the UK site for statistics on poverty and social exclusion, indicate that 11-year-old pupils eligible for free school meals are around twice as likely not to achieve basic standards in literacy and numeracy as other 11-year-old pupils.
In addition to this, most Somali parents struggle with the basic English language and this continues to cause friction between themselves and their children’s schools. Furthermore, research by London Metropolitan University has found that the lack of understanding between parents and their children has caused a huge generation gap which has lead to the construction of a communication barrier between Somali parents and their children. The sad fact is that Somali parents are now regularly relying on the schools to inform them of what is going on in their own children’s lives as a result of them not been able to understand them themselves.
Somali students are very bright by all standards as most of them speak a minimum of two languages. However, their learning within schools is disrupted by their own poor behaviour. Many parents blame the schools for this but the question is how do parents expect schools to discipline their own children? Surely this is the parent’s job at home?
Yes, it is but again this is made difficult as Somali families now are more likely to be lead by a single parent mother as a result of family breakdown. Whilst it is true that some racism may exist within schools, it is not as rife as it once might have been as a breed of younger teachers are now delivering the education and more and more schools are providing cultural training for their teachers. However, if one was to attribute Somali student underachievement to the schools rather than the parents the logical question would then be if this is the case, why is it that other ethnic groups who are equally as likely to suffer from racial bias within the schooling system achieve so consistently? The simple answer to this is parental awareness of the education system and its great value to their children’s lives. This is also complimented by the parent’s economic activities as well as their individual ability to assist their children in achieving within the system which is made possible by their higher levels of personal education.
If Somali parents want better educational attainment for their children they must understand that teacher expectations are based on many things but among the most important are students behaviour and parental support as those student who are poorly behaved and whose parents show no interest in their education are those most likely to suffer from teacher prejudice. Where this might have been race related in the past, it is more likely to be the student’s behaviour and their parent’s attitude towards education that forces teachers to ignore some students over others today.
With some students, it is actually their own parents who put them off the education process entirely. This is because most Somali parents, like all parents, have high aspirations for their children and as a result they try to direct them to the careers which will best place them in an increasingly competitive world. However, what is clear is that Somali parents do not value vocational skills and qualifications as much as academic ability and this has been made clear to many of the children who feel that if they cannot go to university than they have failed. This could not be further from the truth as the most successful people in the world have never set foot in a university let alone attend it for three or four years as students. What Somali parents need to do is to recognise that their children are individuals and have their own goals in life and that they ought to be supported as a university degree is no guarantee of anything. Not everyone wants to be a doctor, teacher or a lawyer even if they have the ability to be.
Parents cannot live their lost professional dreams through their children as children will only succeed in education or training when they are doing something they are passionate about and something that gives their individual lives meaning. In direct contrast, there are those parents who feel that their children should seek employment straight after compulsory education at the age of 16. This is because many Somali families, despite the relative poverty most of them live in, support absent members of their family who still reside in Somalia or other neighbouring African countries and the income that the young family member brings home would be vital to the extended families survival. These parents would rather concentrate on the present rather than the future and as a result it becomes difficult for a young member of the family to pursue further education and work at the same time without sacrificing one for the other. However, having said this, there may be some exceptional students who do both or can do both but the likelihood of them succeeding is very low.
Furthermore, Somali people have always been and still continue to be very nomadic and this has had a horrible impact on their children’s lives as the lack of permanent settlement forces them to move from place to place and exchange culture for culture. Inevitably this leads to students underachieving in schools because they never are settled in one place long enough to build up the confidence and relationships required to be able to aspire to achieve anything of any value.
The impact of educational underachievement is horrendous and it can leave behind lasting effects on students. No student regardless of race wants to fail as most would like the nicer things in life that they are bombarded with by the media and most know that unless they are gifted in other ways, education will be their only route to achieving these dreams. This goes for Somali children too and the only way this can happen is if this damaging cycle of educational underachievement is permanently severed by parents through assisting their children’s schools to teach their children better. Educational underachievement should be taken personally by all parents as it is a reflection on their parenting and their children’s values as much as on the bias that exists within the schooling system. Parents are the primary educators and it is through them that children learn the values of society and what is right from wrong. These vital values that they learn within the home will be the values they take outside to the real world and as a result of this parenting cannot be outsourced to schools or other agencies.
The middle classes who have predominantly driven the agenda for social change in the UK and in particular, on the issues of equality and education, appear to no longer be interested in comprehensive education as they aspire to join the elites of society in the private schools or form niche comprehensive schools in affluent areas with difficult entry requirements which bar the poorer students from entering. The middle classes in the later part of the last century through lobbying and voting worked hard towards the creation of a fairer comprehensive education system for all students. However, as they have become more affluent, more and more middle class families prefer the branded and well marketed education of private schools such as Eton which they believe will provide their children with a better education and future prospects.
Clearly, as the majority of Somali families cannot afford the private school fees, if Somali parents want change within the education system and for their concerns to be put on the local and national education agenda they must learn to scream loudly enough to be heard and employ the lobbying techniques used by the more affluent groups within society. Despite this, there are those parents within the Somali community who understand all of the mentioned things above and have themselves succeeded in education and as a result have been able to have a positive impact on their children’s lives. However, once again, these parents are the exception rather than the rule.
The Somali community needs support to overcome poverty and social exclusion, which contributes to their children’s poor educational achievements. This support is currently provided by those working within the schools themselves. Many schools now employ Somali speaking support staff and teachers and many more provide some services aimed at engaging the parents with the schools activities. However, this is not cost effective and sustainable in the long term as these in school support workers are not seen as independent individuals who are employed to safeguard the success of the parent’s children but school employees who represent the schools best interest at all times. Since many parents feel that some schools are not representing the best interests of their children, these employees become an extension of the system that is failing their children.
In order to overcome this, it would be best and more legitimate in the eyes of the parents, to provide the funding for these in school activities to local third sector groups who are best equipped and have greater experience in delivering outside school support to both the students and their parents. The type of support needed such as mentoring, supplementary schooling, parenting and cultural awareness training is best offered in the community and in a setting free and independent of the school environment. Somali parents have reiterated in every community event organised to discuss issues related to their children that they feel let down by the local schools which their children attend. In order to address this Somali parents want to be an active partner in their children’s education. They no longer want to be passengers on their children’s educational journey. They want to be in the passenger seat working with the schools to ensure their children have a better education than what most of them have become accustomed to.
By funding third sector groups which parents approve of and have relationships with, parents would feel more in control of the agenda and the direction of the support offered to them. They are also more likely to feel part of the process and able to hold providers of outsourced services to account as there would be communal ownership of the services and its objectives. This in turn would increase the trust between the schools and parents and it would lead to the creation of a new relationship based on co-operation and mutual obligation.
The politicisation of education is wrong but the most politicised issue after immigration and crime is education. In an ideal world education would be above petty Party politics but the fact is that it is not. A few weeks away from one of the most tightly contested political elections in modern British History, all the major political Parties are offering parent centred educational policies which they argue will allow schools to be guided and governed by parental direction. The current government, New Labour, in addition to this election pledge, has invested historical amounts in education with mixed outcomes and they have advocated for the extension of the services schools offer to their students and families to include parenting and family support, sports clubs and childcare. However, the Conservatives, want to localise education and free schools from local and central government control. They want to give Head teachers more freedom over the way they discipline their students and introduce tougher school tests because they feel that education has been dumbed down to meet New Labour targets.
All of the three main Political Parties do have equally valid manifesto pledges but for the low income or no income families within society the Conservative model works against them for it is aimed at middle class parents who feel they can run their children’s schools better than their local Councils. If this policy was to come to fruition the attainment gap the Conservative Party aims to narrow will only widen as some schools in middle class areas which already are too exclusive for the poorer students to access, will thrive whilst the poorer ones will be left behind.
Most of the Somali parents do not want to run their children’s schools as they know that they are not yet professionally ready for such level of responsibility. They do prefer on the other hand, the New Labour and Liberal Democrats education policies as they advocate for more in school support in the form of more funding and smaller class sizes. However, arguably this has lead in the past to some of the parents outsourcing their parental responsibilities to the schools and other support agencies.
From the local Somali education meetings in Bristol and around the UK, it is clear that some of the Somali community members are waking up to their children’s failures and understanding their role in assisting them to succeed. The fact is that educational inequality is real and it is primarily driven by outside school factors such as the home environment, parent’s attitudes towards education, peer pressure, poverty and parents own level of education. Having now woken up to this reality, the majority of the Somali community and their third sector support providers need to be ready to play their part in addressing the educational underachievement of young Somali students in the UK.
The greatest gift a society can give a child is a good education and every child deserves this. However, the only way this can be achieved is through a collective endeavour by the schools, parents and policymakers to ensure that the needs of the children within the education system come before their egos and the petty politics that accompanies it.
Recommendation for tackling Somali student’s underachievement in Schools:
* Children do not learn by lectures, they learn by example. Somali parents should become the change they want to see in their children.
* Somali parents who need parenting support should seek it from local training providers. Parenting training is not shameful and it can help to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between themselves and their children.
* Somali Parents should seek to learn the English language and formally educate themselves. This would allow them to advocate for their children’s right to a worthwhile education.
* Parents must acknowledge and support their children’s professional aspirations and not burden them with their own professional dreams.
* Third sector, parent approved providers of outside school services such as play, supplementary schools and mentoring should be commissioned to do this as the schools cannot do everything effectively on their own.
* Third sector Somali groups should be encouraged and supported by local Councils to tender for outside school service provision contracts. This would be most beneficial for all concerned in areas like mentoring where a local Somali charity would be able to arrange for Somali mentors to work with the Somali youth in order to raise attainment. This would allow for the provision of role models and cultural education from those that know the students and their parent’s best.
* Local reading, debating and study clubs should be organised within the community for all to participate in.
* Set up a Somali national education forum to discuss the key issues such as school allocations, exclusion and integration and parental involvement. Every City should have a branch member to deliver locally and since the issues are similar nationally, a community solution based on national evidence can be formulated.
* Somali parents must work towards influencing the educational direction of their children’s school by joining the Board of Governors.
* Since a large number of Somali students in schools are either asylum seekers or refugees, both they and their parents should be supported by community groups to understand the education system and to generally integrate into wider society through education and employment.
The author would like to thank all those that have contributed their knowledge, expertise and time to this publication. Special thanks to Mr.Yusuf Salah and Mahmud Ahmed Matan who both have been instrumental in this publication.