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Evarist Bartolo

We can do better

Up to 70% of a child's key influence is not the teacher or school, but family, friends and society, according to a number of studies

Evarist Bartolo
8 November 2017, 7:03am
A number of studies over the years have researched societal and parental influence on a child in education. It is abundantly clear that external influences, outside school, play a major role in the development of a child. Up to 70% of a child’s key influence is not the teacher or the school, but family, friends and society. This is important to understand when analysing a child’s performance, and it is one of the reasons why things such as school tables are counterproductive.

The financial background of a child has remarkably little effect on final performance, but the priorities of his or her parents and their commitment to ed-ucation are absolutely crucial.

In fact, they build two types of characteristics within a child: a feeling of helplessness or mastery. These two areas have been studied intently over the years by world-class academics. They describe a state of being of a child which has a very significant impact on the success rate within an educational experience. In simple terms, a child is either built up or not allowed to grow by the environment he or she lives in.     

"It is abundantly clear that external influences, outside school, play a major role in the development of a child "
If the student is surrounded by encouragement, persuasiveness and incentives to grow, they will have better odds at succeeding. But if they come from a difficult background, which downplays them and builds a picture of never amounting to much in life, the odds are that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The ‘mastery’ state of being of a person is cultivated through different things, and is tied to confidence as well. This is a short overview of a much broader academic area, but I just wanted to point out how, in some cases, schools have a minor role in the influence of a child. Over the past years we have had children and youngsters from difficult backgrounds succeeding, thanks to focused educational programmes which play on their strengths. But we do know that we are swimming against the current in some instances.

Some children from difficult backgrounds are indifferent; they misbehave and disrupt. Such students have been seen in every generation, but in this day and age the problem comes to the fore more frequently. The reasons for this type of behaviour are two-fold: the first involves all the issues related to a difficult social background. The second is an educational system which is too rigid and which does not cater for the requisites of these individuals. So, what we have is a recipe which does not augur well, because not only are these young people already at a disadvantage, but we are asking them to do things which mainly emphasise their personal weaknesses.

Now, we have a choice. We can lock them up, as some educators have regrettably suggested, and continue to strengthen what they have always been told outside school: that they are helpless. 

"If the student is surrounded by encouragement, persuasiveness and incentives to grow, they will have better odds at succeeding"
Alternatively, we can do what we have been doing; we can build up the social support system in schools and provide them with educational experiences which they enjoy and can learn from, and play on their strengths. Between 2014 and 2016 we introduced dozens of new positions in schools to specifically focus on the social aspect. They include school counsellors and psychologists. We have also introduced a number of vocational and applied educational programmes which entice those who want to learn by doing.

The expression ‘education can change the world’ sounds nice, but it’s nonsense. It can play a role, but societal improvement depends on many factors: culture change, the social fabric and sensible policies. Education, alone, is certainly not enough. It is our duty as citizens, policy-makers and educators to help each and every young person to succeed. Success doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing for everyone, but we must respect individuals as equals. Locking them up and throwing away the key is a medieval way of dealing with a challenge. We have to believe we can do better.


Evarist Bartolo is minister for education and employment

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