Parentkind Written evidence (EDU0030)


1. Seen as the voice of parents in relation to their children’s education, Parentkind is one of the largest federated charities in the country. Our network of around 12,500 Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs), run by more than 100,000 parent volunteers, is the strongest of advocates for the delivery of a world class education system.  PTAs in membership account for 5.5% of all UK charities and raise 1% of all charitable giving. They deliver more than £120 million per year in vital educational equipment, services and opportunities for children in primary and secondary schools. This places the impact of Parentkind alongside some of the largest charities in the UK.

2. This response is submitted on behalf of Parentkind as an organisation and draws upon its extensive research. Clearly, parents of young people who recently took or are going through their GCSEs/A-levels have more experience of what they consider the extent of the validity of those qualifications than parents of children who are at an earlier phase of their education. As key education stakeholders, parents will have useful insights into the fitness for purpose of the 11-16 curriculum. Focus groups or targeted research with those parents will provide a more nuanced snapshot of opinion, which could be tracked over time to see if there is any shift in parental favorability. In this response, Parentkind has presented evidence of parent voice from parents of school-aged children. This has been split into primary and secondary phases (and sometimes further education) where there is a useful difference of opinion.

The range and breadth of subjects covered in the 11-16 curriculum

3. Parentkind’s Parent Voice Report 2022[1] conducted research of parents' views on their child's education using a representative sample of 3,750 parents in England (3,000), Northern Ireland (250) and Wales (500) who have children aged 4-18 attending a state school. The survey asked, “To what extent do you agree or disagree that my child's school teaches a curriculum that meets my child's needs?” The result showed that 75% of parents agreed. Breaking this down to demographics, we found that 34% of primary parents strongly agreed, compared to only 27% of secondary parents (and 28% of further education parents). When it came to parents who tend to agree, it was 44% for primary, but higher for secondary (46%), and as much as 48% for further education. This means that almost three quarters of secondary parents (73%) to some extent agree that their child’s school teaches a curriculum that meets their child’s needs. However, the level of disagreement is higher at secondary level, where 7% tend to disagree and 3% strongly disagree (making for one in ten secondary parents believing that the curriculum does not adequately meet their child’s needs) compared to half as many parents (4% who tend to disagree and 1% who strongly disagree) at primary level. This shows a worrying trend of dissatisfaction in the curriculum growing among parents as their child reaches secondary level. Further research on parental opinion for those with children studying at the secondary phase that aims to understand more about parents’ concerns will be instructive.

The effectiveness of the 11-16 curriculum in equipping young people with the skills they need to progress into post-16 education and employment in a future digital and green economy

4. The Parent Voice Report 2022 found that overall, only just over half of parents agree that GCSEs meaningfully measure the skills, knowledge and capabilities of young people. However, 23% neither agreed nor disagreed, and 16% disagreed. Breaking it down further, there is a higher degree of support for GCSEs among secondary parents. 17% strongly agree and 41% tend to agree that GCSEs are fit for purpose (58% agreeing overall). However, as many as 17% disagree and the remaining 23% have no firm view (neither agree nor disagree). This may be because their child has only just started secondary school and they don't have a fixed idea about the curriculum content of GCSE subjects. (At primary level, only 51% of parents agreed, and 15% disagreed.) Agreement is higher across men, younger parents and those of black and minority ethnic (BAME) heritage, as well as those whose child is eligible for free school meals (FSM).

5. The levels of disagreement in the fitness for purpose of GCSEs may be explained by questions that sought deeper analysis in the 2021 Parent Voice Report[2]. It found that almost two thirds (63%) of parents agreed that their child’s school should do more to nurture non-academic pupils to develop practical and technical skills, while a similar proportion (62%) nevertheless felt their child’s school does enough to provide all pupils with the opportunity to succeed in life (respondents might not necessarily have made a mental link between the questions). While a parent may broadly agree that their child’s school is doing enough to provide opportunities for all to succeed, they may nevertheless feel that the school could be going further in this - particularly when it comes to opportunities to develop more technical and/or vocational skills. Overall, 43% reported that they were concerned their school was not preparing their child for the modern job market, with 16% strongly agreeing. While a quarter actively disagreed, almost three in ten (28%) were neutral or unsure, which is concerning in light of the additional findings that 86% of parents think it important for the curriculum to prepare pupils for the future job market.

6. The 2019 Parent Voice Report[3] asked, "In your opinion, how important is it that the curriculum at your child's school focuses on preparing pupils for the future job market?" More than half (56%) said it was 'very important' and around a third (32%) 'somewhat important', leaving 88% of parents overall agreeing. A minority of 9% said that it was 'neither important nor unimportant', and a tiny minority of 1% suggested it was 'not very important'. Perhaps unsurprisingly, secondary parents tended to be more likely than primary to say it was 'very important' (62% versus 47%). We also found out whether or not parents’ expectations are matched by reality by asking, "To what extent does the curriculum at your child's school focus on preparing pupils for the future job market?" Although overall nearly half (46%) said it was 'enough or about right', only 4% said it was 'too much' whereas over a third (34%) answered 'too little'. By school phase, it was as high as 38% of parents with a secondary school child answering 'too little' and 42% of parents with a child in further education. The 2019 survey also found that 85% think the curriculum should focus on developing an in-depth knowledge of certain subjects, but this falls to 67% who say the curriculum actually meets this need.

7. The top three issues which parents in 2019 thought the curriculum focused too little on were:

8. Considering findings from successive Parent Voice Reports on curriculum, follow-up questions on the reasons for parents’ reticence about how well schools are preparing children for the future job market would be needed to achieve a fuller picture. It’s reasonable to speculate that parents see how fast the job market is changing, thanks to influences such as artificial intelligence (AI), digital and the green economy, and feel that the curriculum their child is taught is not adapting to keep pace with societal changes. It’s possible that this concern could be even higher among primary parents. The job market will have changed even more profoundly by the time their child is sixteen compared to parents whose children are about to enter it. Parents with younger children may, especially in the coming years, be more anxious that today’s qualifications will not serve their child well in reaching the job market.

The availability and attractiveness of technical and vocational options in the 11-16 phase

9. The Parent Voice Reports showed that parents believe more can be done to make vocational options more available to students. In 2022, 63% agreed that "There is too much focus on academic rather than vocational qualifications in today’s education system". There was agreement from 64% of secondary parents compared to only 59% of primary parents. There was disagreement from one in ten secondary parents. Mothers, big families, those who have children with Special Educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and those whose child is in secondary phase of their education were likelier to agree. As noted in the previous answer, the Parent Voice Report 2021 found that almost two thirds (63%) of parents agreed that their child’s school should do more to nurture non-academic pupils to develop practical and technical skills.

The impact of the 11-16 system on the motivation and confidence of pupils of all abilities

10. It is clear from Parentkind research that parents believe curriculum to be more than an in-depth knowledge of certain subjects. In the 2019 Parent Voice Report, mental health and well-being topped the list of aspects of the curriculum considered to be important by parents. It found that 89% of parents believe that it is important (63% very important) that the curriculum helps children develop good mental health and well-being. It also found that 90% of parents think that it is important (59% very important) that the curriculum teaches life-skills such as self-confidence and the ability to cope with set-backs. Parents also place weight on the curriculum preparing children for life outside of and after school - nearly two in three (62%) believe that it is very important that the curriculum prepares pupils to become responsible citizens and helps them develop skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and teamwork (59%). Polling we conducted throughout the pandemic showed that parents prioritising their child’s mental resilience has, if anything, increased.

11. There is a negative connection in the current system between pupils’ mental health and assessment. Almost half (48%) of parents were concerned about their child's exam stress. When asked about their child’s experience of wellbeing and mental health issues connected to school, more than a third (35%) said they had experienced exam stress, which was the third biggest indicator of mental health concerns behind only homework-related stress (38%) and anxiety (38%).

12. The Parent Voice Report 2021 found that the biggest mental health impact of the school system is on children with SEND. Their parents are much more likely to report their child's experience of mental health issues across the board compared to parents who do not have a child with SEND, and this includes exam stress (46% versus 32%).

13. Parents recognise the importance of confidence in their children. The Parent Voice Report 2021 asked which important skills and capabilities children should leave school with. 'Self-confidence' scored highest at both primary (59%) and secondary (53%) levels, above 'a good knowledge of key subjects' (39% and 36% respectively). These findings suggest that parental priorities for education rest with equipping pupils to become well-rounded individuals, prepared to adapt and adjust to their future via transferable personal and practical life skills, rather than a narrow academic focus. The prioritising of self-confidence when the same surveys are suggesting a high degree of parental concern about their child's mental health also suggests that more can be done to ensure that more children emerge from their education with a healthy level of self-confidence.

The effectiveness of GCSEs as a means of assessing the achievements of all pupils at the end of the 11-16 phase

14. The failure rate (pupils not receiving at least five pass grades) is alarmingly high, and too many young people are labelled as failures at the age of sixteen. Parentkind was part of the Independent Assessment Commission’s (IAC’s) member panel. One of its recommendations for a more reliable and equitable assessment system is for an integrated qualifications system that offers every student opportunities to include ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ elements seamlessly alongside accreditation for skill development.

15. Understandably, parents reporting their child's experience of exam stress increases along with the educational phase of the student according to the Parent Voice Report 2021. Whereas only 18% of primary parents report the issue, it grows to 40% for secondary parents and 53% by the post-16 phase. Exam stress is the third biggest mental health issue parents report their child to have experienced (35%) behind only homework-related stress (41%) and anxiety (38%). Parents of a child with SEND report the highest overall incidence of mental health issues, including exam stress (46% versus 32%). Exam stress is also a bigger issue for children of parents eligible for free school meals (43% vs 33%).The disruption to assessments over the past few years owing to the pandemic, and the negative impact on many children’s mental health now that they have returned, have led to many parents questioning whether or not the current assessment model is the best way of measuring children’s skills and knowledge; and if not, whether the education system is doing enough to prepare young people for higher and further education, the workplace, and for life.

Alternative methods of assessment for measuring progress that could be considered either alongside or instead of GCSEs

16. The 2022 Parent Voice Report found that 76% of parents agree that GCSE assessments should include some coursework in every subject rather than examinations only. Support for coursework components is higher among mothers, older parents, big families and those whose children are in the secondary or Post 16 educational phase. Almost as many (74%) say they would support the introduction of a learner profile which records their child’s skills, qualifications and achievements throughout their education.

17. Parentkind polling on the arrangements for 2022’s exams conducted in February 2022[4] found that, when asked whether they would prefer exams to go ahead as planned or be replaced by teacher assessed grades as in 2021, 76% of parents would prefer the latter, compared with only 20% of parents preferring public exams. Other polling on assessment during the pandemic also found much higher support among parents for teacher assessed grades than for formal exams. Parentkind supported the Independent Assessment Commission’s report[5] on assessment reform because their recommendations coincided with evidence of parents' views discovered through research.

18. Parent voice evidence in this submission has shown that the aspects of the curriculum that parents are keenest about concern helping children to develop skills that are useful outside of school (e.g. critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork, working to deadlines). This is in line with the IAC’s (2021) recommendations for the future of assessment and qualifications in England: ‘design learning experiences and qualifications that encourage students to become critical, inquisitive, creative, autonomous and problem-solving learners, that better support their progression into employment, further and higher education and inspire life-long and interdisciplinary learning’. It is clearly an area that represents a high priority for both parents and education stakeholders, and it is right that policymakers are inquiring into it further.

19. Parents are increasingly aware that the current education system doesn't equip all pupils equally to reach their potential and move on to the next phase of their education or the workplace. Many have ideas about what isn’t working and how assessment could be improved. Parents must be part of the national conversation on what a new curriculum and/or assessment system looks like, and changes must be introduced with due sensitivity to the impact on children’s mental wellbeing.


27 April 2023