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The Global Search for Education: Dear Parents – A Conversation with Justine Roberts

“Like many things with parenting, it’s a near-impossible job description, but most of us do our best with it (and beat ourselves up if we get it wrong).” — Justine Roberts

“Parenting is probably the most important job most of us will ever do,” says Justine Roberts, Founder and CEO of Mumsnet. Being a guardian to a child is a responsibility where, “any failure, however small, can take your breath away.” This is why the involvement of parents in the education of children is so important and such a pervasive topic on Mumsnet, one of the UK’s largest websites for parents. It hosts discussion forums where users share peer-to-peer advice and information on parenting, products and many other issues. Mumsnet also has a Bloggers Network with 5,000 registered bloggers and a network of 180 local sites run in partnership with local editors.

Parents were the world’s first ever teachers and still, today, remain indispensable to the project of educating the next generation. The Global Search for Education’s new series, Meet the Parents, welcomes the Founder and CEO of Mumsnet and parent, Justine Roberts, to explore the challenges of raising children in a modern world.

What do you believe is the parent’s role in education?

On the whole, Mumsnet users know their limitations; not many of us are going to suddenly acquire A-Level math skills if we didn’t previously have them. Between finding the right school, getting there on time every day, checking on progress, maintaining good relationships with teachers and the havoc of revision, the pressures of an education are borne by the entire family, and striking the right balance as a parent is a perpetual challenge. If you’ve got the kind of child who will just work until they drop, it’s your job to enforce breaks and timetable some non-negotiable activities away from the school books. If you’ve got the kind of child who’d rather do anything than study, it’s your job to model a bit of perseverance and the value of doing something you don’t enjoy for benefit later on. Parents will try to provide academic support where they can, but also show their children that they have value beyond their grades. Like many things with parenting, it’s a near-impossible job description, but most of us do our best with it (and beat ourselves up if we get it wrong).

Do you think the parent’s role has changed in the last decade and do you think the parent’s role will change in the next decade?

The Internet means that parents have access to support and advice at their fingertips, so parenting has certainly changed – but technology poses almost endless knotty challenges. Devices can keep children quiet for hours on end, and it’s an exceptional parent who hasn’t at least occasionally deployed them for that purpose. But how much screen time is too much screen time? Are social interactions online an adequate substitute for hanging around by the swings in the park swapping football cards? Is Minecraft the new Lego, or something much less wholesome? Parents are having to come to grips, fast, with a flurry of issues: social sharing, privacy, digital footprints, internet safety, parental controls, and how the heck a child can watch videos on YouTube without stumbling across something altogether less palatable.

Stanford University studies claim that students are overworked and underprepared for life. A UK survey concluded that we’re “too focused on exam results and don’t prepare students for the workplace.” As a Mum, what do you believe are the most important competencies young people need to thrive in the age of internet, automation and robotics?

Technological change and the ability to communicate instantly and with anyone represents the single biggest shift in our lifetimes. It’s a different landscape for everyone, and we’re all working out how to navigate it. While as parents we want to provide our children with the best possible grounding in life, the worries posed by the digital age can sometimes feel quite relentless, and only a small minority of us truly understand how it works. This will presumably have to change, and indeed is already changing as coding gets folded into school curricula. Children also have to be helped to engage critically with the adult material they see all around them. The availability of porn on the internet and sexting means that parents lose control at an earlier age and have to instil in their children an independent understanding of consent and healthy relationships

Character education has received a lot of focus in the past year. Character education has been seen as a job for religious institutions and parents. Yet more people now believe it’s so important it also needs to be learned in schools – what are your views on this?

I think kids today have to be really resilient, as global pressures mean they’re working much harder and being made aware from an earlier age that they’re in a race. On top of all that, the exigencies of an always-on culture and pressure to be liked/followed on social media combine to create a lot of potential stress and pitfalls that simply weren’t there for previous generations – this seems to be borne out in recent scary statistics about mental ill-health among young people in the UK. So building resilience, self-confidence and critical-thinking skills really matters—alongside top-notch mental health care of course, but that’s a different topic!

Being a parent is tough in today’s world. Given the challenges (and as the Co-Founder of Mumsnet), what are the key insights that you have learned from parents concerned about these issues?

Parenting is probably the most important job most of us will ever do—particularly at a personal level—and it’s one where you care so deeply about the outcome that any failure, however small, can take your breath away. Today’s parents face issues that were non-existent a generation ago, and with less recourse to family—but with a million online peers. The exorbitant cost of childcare in the UK—the highest in Europe—means that parents who want to work often find it prohibitively expensive. However, it’s not all bad: one of the best things about having children is that they are really very funny. Some of the time. Mumsnet users share dilemmas and advice and they help make complicated situations a little bit clearer. Rule #1 of Parenting Club is: if you’re doing your best, don’t feel guilty. On the many questions raised by constantly-evolving technology: keeping the lines of communication open with your kids is always the way to go. And when it comes to character: make sure your kids know you love them and that they have enormous value to you—everything else can be sorted out later.

The Global Search for Education‘s series, Meet the Parents, explores the challenges of raising children in the modern world and presents solutions relevant to the daily lives of families everywhere. The series serves as testimony to the idea that learning is most effective as a partnership among communities, schools, teachers, children, and the parents who love them.

C. M. Rubin and Justine Roberts

Join me and globally renowned thought leaders including Sir Michael Barber (UK), Dr. Michael Block (U.S.), Dr. Leon Botstein (U.S.), Professor Clay Christensen (U.S.), Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond (U.S.), Dr. MadhavChavan (India), Professor Michael Fullan (Canada), Professor Howard Gardner (U.S.), Professor Andy Hargreaves (U.S.), Professor Yvonne Hellman (The Netherlands), Professor Kristin Helstad (Norway), Jean Hendrickson (U.S.), Professor Rose Hipkins (New Zealand), Professor Cornelia Hoogland (Canada), Honourable Jeff Johnson (Canada), Mme. Chantal Kaufmann (Belgium), Dr. EijaKauppinen (Finland), State Secretary TapioKosunen (Finland), Professor Dominique Lafontaine (Belgium), Professor Hugh Lauder (UK), Lord Ken Macdonald (UK), Professor Geoff Masters (Australia), Professor Barry McGaw (Australia), Shiv Nadar (India), Professor R. Natarajan (India), Dr. Pak Tee Ng (Singapore), Dr. Denise Pope (US), Sridhar Rajagopalan (India), Dr. Diane Ravitch (U.S.), Richard Wilson Riley (U.S.), Sir Ken Robinson (UK), Professor Pasi Sahlberg (Finland), Professor Manabu Sato (Japan), Andreas Schleicher (PISA, OECD), Dr. Anthony Seldon (UK), Dr. David Shaffer (U.S.), Dr. Kirsten Sivesind (Norway), Chancellor Stephen Spahn (U.S.), Yves Theze (LyceeFrancais U.S.), Professor Charles Ungerleider (Canada), Professor Tony Wagner (U.S.), Sir David Watson (UK), Professor Dylan Wiliam (UK), Dr. Mark Wormald (UK), Professor Theo Wubbels (The Netherlands), Professor Michael Young (UK), and Professor Minxuan Zhang (China) as they explore the big picture education questions that all nations face today.

The Global Search for Education Community Page

C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.

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