Martin Johnson: Why parent power will only increase tension

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The Independent Online

When you read the small print, "parent power" hardly describes the new arrangements outlined in the Education White Paper, and neither does Parents Driving Improvement - the title of the relevant chapter. But an unavoidable question arises from the White Paper: who is the parent Ruth Kelly is talking about?

It seems a typical parent is a bit like Kelly: working mum, doing long hours, whose work-life balance is ignored by the firm, but who is determined to read to the children as often as possible, and, above all, certain that getting them into the best school is vital for their futures. As the White Paper puts it, parents "have high aspirations for their children and understandably place high demands on schools ... Yet many parents still feel unsure about how to relate to schools". To Kelly, parents are basically decent, liberal, tolerant and public spirited.

Of course, some parents are like that, but the difficulty for the view of parents as a driving force is that some are not. If you teach in Barking, you can assume that one-in-six of your parents are racist and fascist, and want all people of colour, including many pupils you teach, expelled, not just from your class, or Barking, but from the country - or that's the way they voted in May. Down the road in Tower Hamlets, a large proportion of parents, well-represented as school governors, want one or other kind of fundamentalist - and definitely intolerant - religion to be the basis of the ethos, rules and curriculum.

On a huge estate, or in a town still not recovered from de-industrialisation, generations of unemployment or underemployment produces parents without aspiration, and with deep suspicion of the state and everything to do with it, including schools. Although we may regret this, no one should doubt the basic rationality of their position.

Britain, like other modern societies, is becoming far more complex. The old-value systems derived from social class have been splintered by geography, gender, age and a wide variety of ethnicities. And parents reflect that heterogeneity. But most schools uphold a single culture, in which people are expected to be decent, liberal, tolerant and public spirited. This clash of values between school and community is an ancient theme. Perhaps modern politicians ignore it because they are seeking to maximise their appeal and forgetting they preside over a fractured society. Many teachers, on the other hand, feel the weight of this clash daily.

So, if parents disagree with a school's insistence that it's wrong to hit back when attacked, what are the implications for the White Paper proposals? I can imagine parent-council meetings in deadlock as opposing opinions on uniform, food or sex education prove impossible to reconcile. I can also imagine a united parent council making demands which schools cannot accept.

But why worry? As we have come to expect, the real proposals only slightly resemble the messages spun in the elaborate and damaging pre-launch media dance. The only new rights parents will get are entitlement to information on the progress of their child three times a year, governing bodies listening to their views, trust schools setting up parent councils, which they should consult and take advice from. And parents with a complaint will be able to go to Ofsted, but only after exhausting local procedures. That's it.

And let's not forget the new duty on parents to take responsibility for their child if he or she is excluded from school. Radicals might complain about the watering down of exciting new ideas by a conservative establishment and government bureaucracy. But education practitioners will be relieved when they discover the difficult balance between their professional judgement, pupil pressures and parental concerns has hardly been disturbed by the White Paper.

Giving substantial power to parents could undermine an important purpose of state education in our multicultural society. If schools become more varied by reflecting the views of different groups of parents, this would increase fragmentation and tensions within society. Britain's schools must be valued for their role in promoting social cohesion - and that means promoting beliefs which are unpopular with some parents.

As Sir Alan Steer's group on behaviour and discipline pointed out, many schools are havens of calm and security compared to the communities outside their gates. They stand up for values like justice and tolerance, concern for others and personal aspirations. This may not be the language of politicians, but the nation should be grateful that teachers, lecturers and support staff continue to place a strong common moral ethos at the centre of what they do.

The writer is head of education for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

education@independent.co.uk

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