Parental support crucial for better school performance

31 augusti 2021

Göran Nygren, in a blue shirt, in front av a green building.

Göran Nygren at Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, has examined how lower-secondary school pupils achieve high grades at schools that have above average performance.

Interest in studies and effort are important for pupils in achieving high grades, but high grades also require lots of work at home and extensive parental support. Today’s school system benefits pupils with ample resources and an academic tradition at home while disadvantaging others. These are the findings from an ethnological dissertation from Uppsala University.

“The school system is not fulfilling its compensatory mission. Instead, it is entrenching the inequalities of life opportunities among children and youth, and social reproduction and segregation,” says Göran Nygren, researcher at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology at Uppsala University, who recently defended his thesis.

Since the 1990s, pupil and school results have become increasingly important in Sweden and other countries. School performance has become an important issue around the world. The purpose of Göran Nygren’s dissertation, “I want good grades: an ethnological study of strong school results and practices of pupils in lower secondary education”, is to identify and analyse how pupil ideas, practices and conditions interact and enable better school results.

Above average performance

In the dissertation, Nygren examines how lower-secondary school pupils achieve high grades at schools that also have above average performance. The study, which covers the period 2000–2020, is ethnographic and is based on observations, interviews and conversations. The research material was primarily collected during the years 2000–2010 in three school classes at two lower-secondary schools and then through follow-up and supplementary interviews and conversations with pupils, former pupils, parents and teachers.

In his research, Göran Nygren presents three main findings:

1) For most pupils, school was about constantly performing, being assessed and being graded, and not about learning or gaining knowledge.

Pupils with high grades had more and more complex strategies for schoolwork than their peers. They felt that language skills were important, and they invested a lot of time and energy in schoolwork in school and at home. For most pupils, regardless of performance level, school was about performing by demonstrating their knowledge and skills to achieve higher grades on examinations and grades that qualified them for their desired upper-secondary programme. Their school day was about constantly performing and constantly being tested, assessed and graded. Other characteristics were the individual’s responsibility, independence, discipline and competition. Many were scared of failing exams and receiving bad grades and many experienced work peaks associated with ill-health like stress, stomach pain, headaches and sleeping difficulties.

“It is serious that most of the pupils developed an instrumental approach to school and knowledge: that it was only about receiving high grades so they could be accepted to their desired upper-secondary school programme. Only a smaller group of pupils also felt that learning, knowledge and education of the whole person was fun and important in itself and for their future. This is alarming for a society that aspires to be a knowledge nation.”

Homework and parental support

2) Extensive work at home and parental support are crucial for good school results.

Almost all pupils with good school results in the study shared the common characteristic that they had parents who were financially well off and relatives with academic backgrounds. The parents had academic subject knowledge and skills and many also had educational backgrounds, which were important resources for the pupils’ education. The pupils received extensive parental support with their schoolwork and the parents communicated commitment, motivation and aspirations for the pupil’s education and future. The overall picture is that the extensive work at home combined with the significant and consistent involvement of financially strong parents in their children’s education had the effect of almost all pupils with high grades having exceptionally beneficial, privileged conditions in comparison with classmates who had limited or none of these resources.

“To understand and explain the high school results of the pupils, it is necessary to have a holistic perspective of the pupils’ schoolwork, both in school and at home, and their educational resources. The dissertation shows the importance of awareness of how social, economic and education-related resources and conditions impact pupil education and grades.”

Academic backgrounds benefited

3) Pupils from academic backgrounds are benefited by today’s school system. The school system does not provide equal education. Instead, it amplifies the inequal life chances and segregation of children and youth.

In Göran Nygren’s dissertation, he shows how privileged pupils with a large array of resources at hand benefit from today’s school system and how others are disadvantaged. The effect is social reproduction of pupil educational and life arcs and highlights the difficulties schools have in promoting equality in education, in life opportunities and social justice. The pupil ideal, knowledge norms and organisation of schoolwork in schools had the effect of benefiting upper middle-class and middle-class pupils with academic traditions in the family in a way that was nearly impossible for the other pupils to achieve.

“This study shows that the school system is not fulfilling its compensatory mission. Instead, it is entrenching the inequalities of life opportunities among children and youth, and social reproduction and segregation,” Göran Nygren concludes.