Education and the modern family

by Tracey Burns and Roxanne Kovacs
Directorate for Education and Skills. 
Sciences Po, Paris

In an article published in 1993, David Popenoe argued that the middle of the 20th century was the heyday of the traditional nuclear family. This family consisted of “a heterosexual, monogamous, life-long marriage in which there is a sharp division of labour, with the female as full-time housewife and the male as primary provider and ultimate authority”. Popenoe argued that the decline of the traditional family was detrimental not just for families, but for society as a whole.

He was correct on at least one level: families have changed. The majority of families of the 21st century are much more diverse: Marriage rates have been declining while divorce rates are rising. Couples are choosing to have their children later in life, and more people are having children without getting married at all. In fact, the average age of first marriage (30 years) has now risen above the average age of first childbirth (28 years). Modern families come in many shapes and sizes, including reconstituted families, single parents, multi-racial and same-sex families.

In addition, the role of women has changed. In 2013, 63% of women participated in the labour force on average across the OECD. Women no longer need to make a strict choice between having a family and having a career in most countries across the OECD. In fact, higher fertility rates are positively related to greater female labour force participation on average. The “decline” of the traditional family has thus benefitted our economies, as well as reported well-being.

Do our education systems offer the necessary support for children growing up in modern families? To what extent should schools be responsible for what have traditionally been thought of as “family matters”? And does family composition have any effect on education performance? A recently released Trends Shaping Education Spotlight looks at what education providers can do to support modern families and how new family structures have changed demands for learning and care.

First, it is clear that in many countries children from non-traditional families might need support at school. In PISA 2012, students from single-parent families performed, on average, 4.5 points below students from other types of families, even after controlling for socio-economic differences. Raising awareness of achievement gaps, providing hands-on support, establishing a good relationship with the student and his/her parent(s) or helping with homework and academic difficulties are just a few ways in which educators can help make a difference.

Another important way in which education can assist modern families is by providing high quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). Women are still the main providers of childhood care in all OECD countries and do, on average, 60% of all caring work in the household. Not only can the provision of subsidised ECEC facilitate women’s participation in the labour force, it can also have a positive effect on their children’s educational performance. In fact, 15-year olds who attended one year of pre-primary school performed, on average, 30 points better in PISA, even after taking socio-economic differences into account.

In addition to being influenced by education, modern families have also changed education themselves. For example, parents have become much more active and powerful, making their voices heard by participating in school boards, parent-teacher associations and extra-curricular activities. If they are unhappy with their children’s school, in many countries they can transfer them to another institution. In doing so, they are holding schools accountable and becoming more involved in the governance and delivery of education. This is important for a number of reasons: improving local accountability and responsiveness to the community, engaging new actors in the system that might have hitherto been silent or excluded, and working to increase ownership and trust in the system.

However, not all parents are actively involved in their children’s schools. Parents with lower income tend to be less active, and there are increasing reports of parents from all socio-economic strata refusing to accept criticisms of their children, or expecting teachers to handle all education matters without their support. Teachers increasingly report being expected to play the role of the parent as well as the educator, adding extra time and tasks to their already busy workday.

Successful modern schools must make an effort be open and responsive to the needs of modern families. At the same time, modern families must also accept their responsibility in ensuring the well-being of their children – and that includes taking part in their education. Without this partnership and trust, our schools and communities are less successful – and it is the children who pay the price.

Trends Shaping Education 2013
OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers 
PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes. 
PISA 2012 Findings
OECD, Doing Better for Families 
OECD, A Quality Toolbox for Early Childhood Education and Care 

Photo credit: Father reading child a story / @Shutterstock

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