What do parents think about change?

13 Nov 2018 |

It is common to see grass-roots campaigns, led by parents, campaigning for new public services in their community. A new school, new housing, better transport links to the local town or through the district, improved water supply to a village – these are rallying calls for which it is relatively straightforward to gather names and momentum behind, and often result in change.

Similarly, its also common to see campaigns against change – to stop something closing. Parents often resist a school closing, or a hospital, or a local shop, or a public transport route – and again, these can often be fruitful in stopping local or district or national governments making a change.

What is seen less often, is campaigning for change within a system. For example, to improve education quality.

The Varkey Foundation Global Parent Survey from last year showed that, for example, parents were very satisfied with schools and their school system. Across all the countries polled, the overwhelming majority of parents said that they thought the quality of their child’s school was fairly or very good. And although they were less positive about overall school quality in their country, it was still a strong majority supportive of it.


And yet, other indicators seem to suggest that parents might not be that happy. To take one example, work from a couple of years ago from Monazza Aslam of University College London shows there has been a sharp increase right across the world in parents paying for private schools – including low cost alternatives in developing world. Now, this can sometimes be because there isn’t a state alternative available. But often there is – but parents prefer to take up an alternative, suggesting a very visible dissatisfaction with the state run option.

And assessment data from a number of countries suggests that even when parents are happy, they perhaps shouldn’t be. Recent work by Susannah Hares and Justin Sandefur of the Centre for Global Development shows that in many countries the proportion of young people in various African countries who can read a sentence after 8 years of primary school is below 50%. Again, this is reading one sentence, after 8 years of schooling.

This presents something of a dilemma for the policymaker. On the one hand, the criticism is that parents are often ignored or downplayed as an actor in the policy process – drowned out by the other players in domestic politics, or the power and financial muscle of international and donor finance. But yet here, we have an example where parents are not necessarily expressing their desire for change, even when the data suggests there is an issue. What do you do when parents are not advocating for change that governments think they should be?