Education: Never mind the kids, watch out for the parents

Teachers are suffering psychological and physical bullying from mothers and fathers unwilling to accept the authority of the school. Lucy Hodges reports
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Last week, a five-year-old boy from Norwich was removed from his primary school because his mum wanted him to be able to take blackcurrant juice to drink at school break. The school, which provided an orange drink for all children at play time, would not let him. The mother said that the child was allergic to orange juice, and removed him from the school.

Trivial it may be, but this story is another brick in a growing wall of cases in which parents feel that their rights transcend the right of a school to set rules. Sometimes they just move their child to another school but in an increasing number of cases they harass the child's class teacher, or the headteacher, to get what they want.

This may involve psychological bullying by middle-class parents determined to get extra teaching for a child with mild dyslexia, for example, or the physical bullying that some parents mete out to teachers.

If there is one thing worse than an abusive pupil, it's an abusive parent. Many teachers and headteachers live in fear of mothers and fathers who make unrealistic demands, pester them mercilessly, fly off the handle, try to poke their eyes out and, worst of all, threaten to kill them.

Headteachers are beginning to speak out where once they were silent. They believe it is time people knew about the reality of running a school in Britain today. "Things have been getting increasingly bad over the past few years," says David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

"Some parents seem quite incapable of controlling themselves. They don't seem to be either able or willing to engage in sensible discussion about their children's problems. They don't know how to, or don't want to, use the complaints procedures laid down. More and more, they use aggression as a first rather than a last resort."

Some observers claim that from the Sixties onwards we have had a generation of parents that is hostile to teachers and authority. Sometimes the flashpoint between teacher and parent is over discipline, with parents objecting to their children being subject to disciplinary action by the school. At other times it is over special needs, with some parents objecting to children being recommended for a special needs assessment and others demanding extra teaching.

One head in the south of England, for example, was recently on the point of resignation over a campaign by one family to have their child given special needs teaching. She grew to dread seeing the mother walk up the drive each morning and her life was made a misery by the relentless psychological pressure. She did not resign. But she suffered the same torment that many heads and other teachers claim to be enduring at the hands of unreasonable parents.

Last month, Elizabeth West, head of Charlotte Sharman primary school in Elephant and Castle, south London, took early retirement rather than soldier on in the face of threats from a small group of parents nicknamed the "dirty dozen". The school, which she had run for more than 20 years, was considered successful. Strong on tradition, order and discipline, it was popular with parents. But a number of mothers and fathers had it in for her.

Nobody has got to the bottom of the parents' complaints, says Brian Fuller, the NAHT's regional officer for London. But Mrs West and her deputy, Pauline Milton, who is also taking early retirement, are now being accompanied to school by security guards.

For Mr Fuller, such events are the stuff of daily life. He says he receives one call a week from a head claiming that parents in the school are being violent or rude and abusive to class teachers, the deputy or another member of staff, and asking what can be done. In serious cases Mr Fuller advises headteachers to ban parents from the school premises, using the Miscellaneous Provisions Act of 1982 which states that causing a nuisance on school premises is a criminal act.

One head of a north London school banned a child's mother when it became clear that the woman was waging a vendetta against her. The trouble began when the mother was asked for a note to cover her child's absences. The request brought forth a string of loud obscenities. "I said nothing," says the head, who prefers not to be named. "I just stood there, I was astonished."

The mother proceeded to the local education office where she made a formal complaint, claiming that the head had poked her in the chest and knocked her to the ground, which was untrue. On another occasion she again yelled verbal abuse at the head, running after her and jabbing at her with her finger. The amazed headteacher fled from room to room, chased by the angry mother. Eventually she managed to slip inside her own office and shut the door, pushing against it while the mother tried to pull the door open. That incident was only resolved after the police had been called.

It reduced the head to tears. "I never cry," she says. "But I did actually sob after the police had been. Of course, I had heard that kind of screaming and language before, but the malevolent venom directed towards me for absolutely no reason - that was new."

The mother also spread false rumours about the head, tried to get up petitions against her from other parents and made threatening telephone calls. She would terrify the head with comments such as: "I'm going to get you."

As if verbal and physical abuse were not enough, the head has also suffered damage to her car over the past 18 months. Her tyres have been slashed twice and the paintwork vandalised. It cost pounds 450 for her brand new car to be resprayed, and the NAHT helped to foot the bill.

Such comments mirror what is going on in the community, say headteachers. As society becomes more violent, they argue, so do its citizens. And heads are on the front line, dealing with children who may not be looked after well at home and whose parents may be mistreating them. The parents themselves may be under stress, bringing up children on their own and with very little money.

At the same time, parents are becoming more assertive. And they have been encouraged in this by the Government. "This misguided attempt to give people opportunities to complain has brought in a complaints culture," says Simon Marsh, head of St Mary Magdalene School in Liverpool Road, north London. "Parents' rights have overtaken the concept of parents' responsibilities."