How do parents think the English school system should change?

Connor IbbetsonData Journalist
June 03, 2021, 10:07 AM UTC

Curriculum, private schools, homework – what should change?

The Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins has resigned after his plans for education reform to help students catch up following the pandemic were rejected by the government. 

In our last article on the English school system, YouGov looked at what parents thought of the current schooling system, how it handled the pandemic, and whether it prepared their children well for adult life. Now, further YouGov polling for The Times reveals how parents think the schooling system should change, from the focus of curriculums and key subjects, to the nature of private schools and whether homework is really needed for younger learners.

How should schools be reformed?

Some 53% of people think changes to the national curriculum should be a part of a hypothetical overhaul of the schooling system – including some 61% of parents with children under 5. (More precise questions on how the curriculum is handled and could be changed are covered in the next section).

Elsewhere, however, another 52% of the public think that changes need to be made to class sizes. Parents who have children at secondary age are more likely to back changes to class sizes (56%) versus just under half of those with children under 5 (46%) – possibly unsurprising given secondary classes at their largest size in nearly twenty years,

While 32% of people overall would support changes to the length of the school day, support is lower among parents. The most likely group of parents to support such changes are those with children aged 5 to 11 (26%), with support lowest among parents of older teenagers (17 to 18) of whom only 20% would change the timings of the school day.

Further to this, Sir Kevan Collins had highlighted increasing the length of the school day as a solution to help students catch up on teaching after COVID. YouGov’s Teacher Track survey previously showed that the overwhelming majority of teaching staff (91%) across Great Britain were opposed to such measures. Now this survey finds a similar opinion with parents, who are also opposed to an extension of the school day, although not quite as strongly. Opposition is highest among parents of children under 5 (65%) and lower among parents of children aged 17 to 18 (55%).

The general public, however, are split over the idea of an extended school day, with 39% in favour and 43% opposed.

Of other potential changes to the system, three in ten people (31%) would change the current inspection regime, and the same proportion of people would back teaching by stage, rather than age of child, and 28% think school structures need to change.

Curriculum: do schools focus too much on certain subjects like science or art?

As we saw above, 53% of the general public would back changes to the curriculum if there was an overhaul of the education system – so how they do think schools are currently balancing their topics?

The general public is split on whether arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) get either too little or about the right amount of focus, and among those with children there is disagreement between parents of the youngest and oldest.

Parents with children older than 19 tend to think that the STEM subjects are not focused on enough in schools (40%), compared to only 21% of those with the youngest children (under 5) who think the same. This group of parents is instead most likely to think STEM subjects already get about the right amount of focus in class time (51%).

This feeling is reversed when asking about arts subjects. Those with children under the age of 5 are more likely to think that the arts do not get enough focus in schools (46%) compared to parents of children aged 19 or older (28%).

Further to the balance of science and art, some 22% of people think the curriculum should have a more international focus, while 28% say it should instead focus more on Britain and less on the wider world. A final 30% think the current balance is about right. Parents with children over 19 (39%) are almost twice as likely as those with children under 5 (20%) to think that the curriculum should have more of a British focus. 

Are grammar schools good for social mobility, and should private schools be banned?

One topic that is always at the forefront of discussion around the education system is that of private and grammar schools. What do parents and adults make of elite education: does it benefit all or just a privileged few?

The public is split on how grammar schools effect social mobility. Some 32% of people think they give poor children a chance to succeed and are good for social mobility, while 35% say they are bad, and limit advantages to a select few. Another 13% think they make little difference either way.

While opinion is also split among the parental groups, those with children over 19 are more likely to say that grammar schools are good for social mobility (39%) than those with children under 5 (29%).

Moving on to private schools, half of people think they harm Britain and that on balance they “reinforce privilege and social divisions” (50%) – an opinion consistent among the parental groups.

Three in ten people (30%) take the opposing view, instead feeling more that private schools are “beacons of excellence that help to raise standards in state schools”.

Despite this fairly negative opinion of private schools, people tend to be opposed to banning them (52%) – including some 21% strongly opposed to doing so. Three in ten (31%) would support banning private schools completely, however only one in eight (13%) would strongly support such action. Opinion among parents deviates little from the population’s consensus, with around three in ten of each parental group in favour of banning private schools.

While people are opposed to banning private schools, they do support ending their charitable status so they would have to pay more tax (64%), with only 18% opposed to doing so. Most (59%) would also support state funding for poorer children to attend private institutions.

Is homework a good tool for learning, or is there too much emphasis on it?

Homework is another contentious subject, with some arguing it has a “limited purpose” in teaching - but what do parents think?

Among the public, some 59% agree that homework is an “essential part of improving a child’s learning”. This opinion is most strongly held by those with older children, including 65% of those with children over the age of 19, and less reflected in those with children under 5 (47%).

Another 51% of the public think that homework is not needed for students at primary level – a sentiment shared by half of parents with children at this stage of their education (50%), but is higher among those with children under 5 (64%).

These parents of the youngest children are also the most likely to think that too much emphasis is placed on the marking of homework (55%), compared to three in ten of those with children aged over 19 (30%). 

See part one of this survey on the current state of the English school system here 

See full results here