Thursday 13 December 2018

Educating mums to degree level will benefit kids

An urgent focus to enlighten our young mothers has never been more important, writes Liz Waters

Society's debt to Mums: Saoirse Ronan in ‘Lady Bird’
Society's debt to Mums: Saoirse Ronan in ‘Lady Bird’

Liz Waters

Today, Mother's Day, is an opportunity to reflect on the impact our mothers have had on our lives and show our gratitude for the sacrifices they made for us and the opportunities they have given us.

One of my favourite parts in the film Lady Bird is when the character, played by Saoirse Ronan, asks her mother how much it cost to raise her, so when she grows up she could write a cheque and repay her. It is a fascinating thought really - how much do we actually owe our parents?

While Saoirse's character focuses on the money spent raising her, what is missed here is the immeasurable and intangible value of mothering.

At An Cosan, a national community education organisation, we talk about the One Generation Solution. This means that if you educate a young women who is a lone parent to degree level she will earn 66pc more than her peers and she and her family will exit poverty forever.

If we think about that, it means that the value of the mother's education is not just in improving her own life across a number of measures, but also the lives of every one of her children. It's an extraordinarily simple metric and its application should have an exponential impact.

As 85pc of all lone parents are women, an urgent focus on educating young mothers has never been more important. Research shows a mother's education is the factor most consistently and strongly associated with children's achievement. It has a larger effect than the father's education and family income.

A mother's education level has the most astonishingly detailed effects on her children's life. A child is over four times more likely to experience emotional and behavioural difficulties if their mother has primary level education than if the mother has a degree.

It will affect her child's reading, mathematics and science test results in primary school. It even affects whether or not a child will complete their Leaving Certificate and what results they will achieve.

Vocabulary growth is correlated with the quantity and quality of speech to which a child is exposed. Mothers with a higher level of education talk more to their children, are more likely to read to them and to actively engage them in conversations that tend to be more complex and to elicit feedback than less educated parents. Higher educated mothers are more likely to use questions and praise compared with lower-educated mothers who use more directives and commands. On average, children from families where the mother has less education have smaller vocabularies and slower vocabulary growth than children of a mother with a higher education.

We know that meaningful access to education for young women who parent alone means providing transformative community education - a curriculum that touches the mind, heart, body and soul in a belief that it can generate enough individual and communal energy to change lives and communities.

It means providing childcare, a warm and welcoming environment, one-to-one academic support and mentoring, literacy (including IT literacy) support, guidance and counselling. These are particularly important for those who have had negative childhood educational experiences, or who are alienated from the mainstream education system. This is our An Cosan model.

Over the years we have helped thousands of young women exit poverty through education and each one of them has brought their children with them out of poverty - forever! The value of growing up in an environment where being educated is the norm and not the exception has an immeasurable knock-on effect on a mother's children, her wider family, her community and on the wider society.

For those mothers who diverted the course of their children's lives out of poverty through their education, we know that there is no amount we can write on a cheque to repay them, our debt, society's debt to them is far more than a number.

Liz Waters is CEO of An Cosan

Sunday Independent

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