Conor Ryan: Schools need super parents to support them

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The Independent Online

The Solicitor General Harriet Harman embarrassed Labour in 1996 when she opted for a Bromley grammar school over a Southwark comprehensive for her son. And the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, had to apologise in 2003 after saying that he would rather "go out on the street and beg" than send his child to his local Lambeth school.

The Solicitor General Harriet Harman embarrassed Labour in 1996 when she opted for a Bromley grammar school over a Southwark comprehensive for her son. And the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, had to apologise in 2003 after saying that he would rather "go out on the street and beg" than send his child to his local Lambeth school.

Both politicians faced the dilemma of many Londoners. On the one hand, the system is supposed to provide parents with choice. But, despite improvements, the supply of good state schools hasn't keep place with demand in the capital.

This is what inspired Lambeth parents to use new legislation to develop Elmcourt Secondary School, a secular comprehensive for 900 pupils, which will open in 2007. Parental pressure also produced the Lambeth City Academy, which opened last year, and the Charter School in Southwark.

These poster boys for parent power encourage the politicians. The Education Secretary Ruth Kelly wants parents to sack heads of failing schools, while the Conservatives would allow parents to use taxpayers' money to buy a place in a private school, provided it was cheap enough. Even the Liberal Democrats' class-size promise owes more to parental pressure than educational efficiency.

But parent power has more than one dimension. Parental responsibilities are too often left out of the equation. Parents should have access to good schools and be able to influence the policies at their child's school. But they should also teach their children how to behave, and support schools that discipline them when they cause trouble.

No party has solved the choice problem. With Labour's plans, there may be more specialist schools and academies, but if most continue to offer places to those living nearest to the school, the best schools could remain the preserve of the middle classes who can afford to live near them.

The Tories' "pupil passport" would free schools from national admissions guidelines, but this could reduce choice by allowing schools to select pupils rather than parents to select schools. And, though both parties promise to expand popular schools, many good schools want to stay small, believing this is a factor in their achievements.

This is why the proportion of good schools must also increase if pupils' chances of attending one are to improve. That means failing schools improving and coasting schools challenged to excel, as well as more new schools.

The combined pressures exerted by inspections, league tables and targets - introduced by both main parties in power - have significantly reduced failure. In inner London, where places such as Islington had fewer than one-quarter of pupils gaining five good GCSEs in 1997, only Southwark has fewer than 40 per cent reaching that level now.

There are still too many failing schools, but there is as big a challenge in improving schools that could do much better. Labour is right to propose empowering parents through more information and by making it easier to trigger inspections. Coasting schools need articulate parents to challenge complacency rather than taking the cash to a no-frills Woodhead Academy. Without such pressure, coasting schools will increase - and parents could have less real choice.

But parents can hinder as well as help when it comes to school discipline. Low-level disruption - backchat, swearing, inattentiveness - is far more common than the violence that leads to expulsion and time in a referral unit or turnaround school.

Such disrespect owes more to home than school. Remember how Jamie Oliver found parents pushing chips through the school gates to their children, who hated his healthy dinners. Equally, many heads find that parents will aggressively, even violently, dispute their disciplining of an unruly child.

So, while schools must now be more open and responsive to parents than in the past, this should be a partnership. For the relationship to work, good heads need parents to back them, just as much as bad heads can expect parents to sack them. Politicians should recognise that parents can be part of the problem as well as the solution. But it may take until 6 May for that to happen.

Conor Ryan is co-author of 'Excellence in Education: the Making of Great Schools' (David Fulton)

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