A Study of a Scottish Childhood

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I'd like to introduce you to a boy called Murray. Murray is what some would refer to as a big strapping lad. He lives in a rural community with his Mum and Dad, a working class farming family. As Murray recently celebrated his 4th birthday he started to attend the local nursery school, in preparation for the transition to school next August. As part of a phased entry, Murray attended for 2 half day sessions per week. This has recently increased to 4 half day sessions per week.

Murray loves outdoors play. "Me strong" he happily exclaimed as he helped to move a pile of logs in the nursery garden. He also loves to lead the gathering up of the fallen autumn leaves, recognising that being the tallest child in the group he is best placed to tip the bucket of leaves into the large garden wheelie bin.

Not all aspects of Murray's transition from home to nursery have been smooth. Murray is finding it difficult to remain focussed during adult led teaching sessions. Neither is he showing any interest in literacy or numeracy activities. He has very limited knowledge of colours. Furthermore, his knowledge of vocabulary is limited and has appeared to hinder socialisation with his peers. A recent incident in the sand pit illustrates the challenges being faced my Murray.

Murray played individually, using a hand scoop to dig and make a pile. Three other children were engaged in a role play scenario, using a variety of construction vehicles. Murray grabbed at one of the vehicles "Me want". When the digger was not offered immediately, Murray threw sand at the other children before storming off. The nursery staff are concerned Murray's physical outbursts are fuelled by his frustration at not being able to express his emotions and feelings verbally.

As a nursery which subscribes to the Reggio Emilia approach to early years education, thereby seeing parents as partners in their children's education, staff were keen to engage Murray's parents in dialogue regards possible support mechanisms. Murray's parents have so far declined the invitation to meet staff.

It is widely accepted that if children are to maximise their potential from schooling the full support of their parents is required. Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is tasked with safeguarding and respecting the rights of children and young people living in Scotland. As referred to in Article 3 'All adults should do what is best for children'. Given the reaction of Murray's parents, some may question whether they are acting in the best interests of their son.

In response to the statement above, I plan to use my assignment to address the question: can home attitudes to schooling, and in particular written literacy, have a negative impact on a child's transition to, and future attainment in, school?

The transition from home to school can be daunting for any child; therefore to enable them to progress as smoothly and confidently as possible it is vital their experience of the new learning environment is exciting and rewarding. Negative first impressions can be long lasting; children, like Murray, who feel uncomfortable and out of place may not fully benefit from the learning opportunities available. Continuity between the home and school environment is important. Desforges & Abouchaar (2003) further highlight:

'Parental involvement has a significant effect on children's achievement and adjustment, even after all other factors (such as social class, maternal education and poverty) have been taken out of the equation' (p86).

The complexities and vast range of factors influencing children can be well illustrated using the ecological model of contextual influences on children's development (Bronfenbrenner 1986).

Bronfenbrenner advocates children develop within their own individual microsystem, consisting of their most immediate environment and relationships. However, children and their families do not exist in isolation; they are influenced by wider social and cultural environments.

Mesosystems are the interrelationships among such environments. The strength and diversity of the relationships among environments dictate how powerful an influence the resulting systems will have on the child's development.

In the case of parental attitudes and involvement in schooling, they represent 2 key aspects in the mesosystem. They connect the adults in 2 of a child's microsystems, the nursery/school and his home, and convey congruence in the values and attitudes governing both settings. A child's ability to learn at school not only depends on the quality of teaching they are exposed to in the classroom but also the extent to which the child's family values education and their relationship with the school (Luster & McAdoo 1996).

Given the influence of social and cultural factors, each child will have grown up in a unique environment where opportunities for learning will determine the range and differing level of skills they bring to the classroom. In addition to being experts in child development, effective teachers have to be sensitive to the antecedents of difference among the individual children in their class and a have secure understanding of their unique level of cultural capital.

The cultural capital hypothesis (Bourdieu 1973 in De Graaf et al 2000) suggests there are particular predisposed skills or cultural resources that enable some children more than others to better master the curriculum that is pervasive in schools. Cultural capital consists of high status cultural signals, including attitudes and behaviours, which are used for social and cultural exclusion (Lareau & Horvat 1999). Cultural capital theory often refers to the importance of exposure to the 'beaux arts'. Children from families who have limited familiarity with such activities as music, art, reading or theatre may therefore experience school as a hostile environment, lacking the skills and attitudes to flourish. In essence, the suggestion is the socially privileged enjoy greater academic success because schools reward their greater cultural capital.

An early study of cultural capital found that cultural resources do have a positive effect on educational attainment, even when other influencing factors such as prior academic ability and parental, or specifically the father's, qualifications are factored in (DiMaggio 1982, DiMaggio & Mohr 1985 in De Graaf et al 2000). Cultural capital can lessen the effects of socio-economic factors.

A criticism of this research, however, would be that it focussed on the young people's cultural interests when measuring cultural capital, neglecting the possible influence of parent's cultural resources. Subsequent research confirmed parental cultural capital can make a positive contribution towards increasing children's attainment (Crook 1997 in Evans et al 2010).

Another point to consider is the relevance of the beaux arts to differing educational systems. Bourdieu's thesis applied directly to France, where art history and philosophy retain a relatively high profile in schools. If we focus our attention on the case of Scotland, the Curriculum for Excellence offers children a broad based education with no particular focus on the arts. Therefore I believe it to be highly unlikely that children with low exposure to the beaux arts would feel the culture of the Scottish school system to be hostile.

A second element of cultural capital, and one which I find more widely relevant, is socialising cognitive qualities, particularly reading characteristics and linguistic skills (Farkas 1996).

Parents who read frequently set the norm for their children and become role models, potentially improving the learning culture in the family (Teachman 1987). A home in which books are integral will encourage children to read for pleasure, thereby providing them with information and vocabulary (Dronkers 1992 in Evans et al 2010). Children who read outwith school tend to have an advantage in school (Hanson & Farrell 1995 in De Graaf et al 2000).

Sociology of literature defines 4 factors by which parents can further develop their children's literacy skills: material provisions (having books at home, using the public library, buying books as gifts), parental actions (reading at home, encouraging children to read), parental attitudes (values attached to education, reading, writing) and family based interactions (telling stories, talking about books, reading to children).

It is parental reading behaviour, much more than exposure to the beaux arts, that promotes children's educational attainment (De Graaf et al 2000). Parents who read frequently provide a stimulating home learning environment and may be better informed as to how they can support their child's transition to, and their ongoing experience of, school. It shows a commitment to investing in knowledge, and perhaps in education.

The cultural environment of the home will mirror that of the school more closely. Children, who are used to having books, and to being immersed in a culture of reading at home, will not be startled by the reading practices common to the school setting. Coming from a home environment which is rich in literacy, benefits children as they begin to read and write (Rayner et al 2001, High et al 1999 in Doherty & Hughes 2009). The larger the home library, the better children perform in reading tests, across a broad range of countries (Park 2008).

Whilst there are little differences in the ways parents from varying backgrounds engage with their children in conversation, those children who have stories read to them on a regular basis manage the transition to school based literacy more successfully (Wells 1987).

Perhaps most interestingly, contradicting Bourdieu's original theory, differences in cultural capital are far more important for children from lower socio-economic status than their high socio-economic status peers. In particular, parental cultural capital is of most additional help to children from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Evans et al 2010). Parents can begin to compensate for other socio-demographic factors if they provide their children with a supportive home reading climate. 'What parents do with their children is more important than who parents are' (Sylva et al 2004).

There has been dissent regards the disentangling of books and reading habits from the broader beaux arts context. Books are not an exclusive resource only available to those with a high socio-economic status. Books, magazines and computers do generally stimulate learning but should be viewed as learning resources rather than cultural resources (Kingston 2001). Perhaps, therefore, the term "scholarly culture" (Evans et al 2010), rather than cultural capital, is a more accurate definition.

The research evidencing the importance of cultural capital or scholarly culture is reinforced by data from the Growing up in Scotland longitudinal study. Children who were read to often, and had experienced a visit to a library by the age of 10 months old, scored higher on both naming vocabulary and picture similarity assessments. Additionally, children who regularly took part in activities and whose parents rated activities as very important demonstrated higher cognitive ability scores at the age of 34 months than children who experienced fewer and whose parents attached less importance to them (Scottish Centre for Social Research 2009).

Respondents in higher income households and those with higher educational attainment reported greater access to resources such as books than those in lower income households and with lower educational attainment. Of households in the lowest income bracket, 40% had less than ten children's books compared with only 18% in the highest income quartile (Scottish Centre for Social Research 2007).

The Scottish Book Trust's early years programme, Bookbug, is a useful vehicle to promote the benefits of parental reading to children. By issuing free packs of books to all children aged birth to 5 years, and co-ordinating free activities such as Bookbug sessions, babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers can access and enjoy rhymes, song and listening to stories. A greater challenge, perhaps, is ensuring the percentage of parents who have never or rarely read to their children actually modify their behaviour and actively use the books provided.

So, what can nurseries and schools do to help Murray and other children like him?

The primary aim must be to ensure Murray, and all other children, feel happy, safe, respected and included in the school environment. As teachers we can cultivate effective learning by promoting the social, emotional and mental wellbeing of each child.

It is important to recognise and celebrate the positive things that Murray brings to the classroom. His obvious love of the outdoors can be an important point to focus on. Integrating learning and outdoor experiences can provide relevance and depth to the curriculum in ways that are sometimes more difficult to achieve indoors. Outdoor learning experiences can offer a vast range of opportunities for developing skills in a number of areas including communication, problem solving, information technology, working with others and thinking skills.

In the case of Murray, language development is of key importance as it is through language and literacy that all areas of the curriculum are accessed. Wells (1987) stated 'To try and make sense, to construct stories, and to share them with others in speech and in writing is an essential part of being human' (p222). As teachers, we have a responsibility to assist children to cultivate and deepen their meaning making.

Whilst Noam Chomsky proposed children are born with the instinct or innate facility for acquiring language, interactionist theory acknowledges the important role played by adults in providing social support and contexts for developing language. Jerome Bruner, whilst agreeing there is an innate linguistic capability, theorised the need for adults to apply language acquisition support systems to advance or scaffold a child's language acquisition. By pitching language at a level higher than that which the child is capable of themselves provokes a learning effect. Support such as teacher-child conversations, listening to stories and rhymes and using language in play all positively contribute to a child's future literacy. Given Murray's current low level of language, support to help comprehension may be offered, initially, by providing access to visuals such as pictures, videos, computer software, artifacts and so on.

By further increasing Murray's confidence and communication skills, his increased language should help to facilitate greater contact with peers. Relationships with peers are important and are powerful influences on children's conformity. Peer relationships provide opportunities to acquire and refine social skills and understanding. As advocated by Jean Piaget, they also contribute to the reduction of a child's egocentricism.

As parental involvement in a child's education is widely associated with increased achievement and attainment (Desforges & Abouchaar 2003), developing strong home-school links should remain a top priority for any educational establishment. Regardless of the reasons that Murray's parents choose not to accept the offer to engage with his nursery, the nursery personnel must try and avoid interpreting their behaviour as a general lack of interest. The relationships within the childcare and education triangle (child, parent and teacher) are highly complex and sometimes fraught with tension, which may lead to negative effects on the child (Hohmann 2007). 'When the habitus of parents visiting the school differs from that of the broader culture, or field in Bourdieu's terminology, they may feel less comfortable and welcome than other parents' (Lee & Bowen 2006 p199). Less privileged parents may also lack confidence in their interactions with teachers and the schooling system as a whole (Reay 1999).

Parental attitudes and values can undoubtedly have a profound effect on a child's ability to learn (Bronfenbrenner 2005). In an effort to formally acknowledge the importance of involving parents in their child's education, the Scottish Government passed the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006, abolishing school boards and replacing them with parent councils. Whilst any attempt to involve parents in their child's education should be applauded, the reported £3 million cost of the Act has drawn criticism from parents and the Headteachers Association of Scotland (Kemp 2007).

A key question has to be whether or not the new top-down Act will encourage any more parents to get involved with the school and their child's education. Some parents have always been actively involved in school life and will continue to do so. Will the new parent councils be any more successful in engaging parents from a wide range of backgrounds or will the make-up remain predominantly white and middle class? Creative strategies may be needed to successfully breakdown perceived barriers related to negative interpretations of cultural differences and discomfort in an educational setting. If some parents continue to view schools as institutions with a set of values at odds to their own, there will be no change to the status quo.

As part of their responsibility to the Act, local authorities and individual schools should continually assess and evaluate the contents of their parental involvement strategy documents, considering what effect their current structures and ways of working have in encouraging parental involvement.

In conclusion, I believe home attitudes to schooling, and in particular written literacy, can have a significant impact, both positive and negative, on a child's transition to, and attainment in, school.

Children who grow up in a home without books complete, on average, 7 years of education. Those growing up with a couple of dozen books complete nearer 11 years, whilst children of the most bookish parents complete 14 years of education (Evans et al 2010).

It is critical for schools to understand the effects of cultural capital on a child's transition and ongoing experience of school. As expressed by Evans et al (2010) 'A book-oriented home environment...endows children with tools that are directly useful in learning at school: vocabulary, information, comprehension skills, imagination, broad horizons of history and geography, familiarity with good writing, understanding of the importance of evidence in argument, and many others' (p189).

Parental commitment to an educational culture, evidenced by reading and a large number of books in the home, supports their child's transition to school and greatly enhances their future educational attainment. Most importantly, the effect remains strong after controlling for well-known sources of educational advantage and can be evidenced the world over.