'Parents: stand up to Big Brother'

The Home School Agreement tells parents what to do with their children. It's an Orwellian nightmare come true, writes David Abbott
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The Independent Online

A long time ago, when I was young and didn't have offspring to worry about, I read a book – 1984 by George Orwell. It's quite well known apparently, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. At the time I thought it was just a story. Then a few years ago a "New Labour" government asked me (now a parent) to sign something called the Home School Agreement.

The Home School Agreement may appearreasonable enough. It seems pretty sensible to me that children should have regular homework, that parents should not take their children away on holiday in term time, and that schools should set themselves national curriculum targets. So what am I complaining about?

One irritation is the pretence of consensus building embodied in this legislation – it is pure New Labour. The DFES advisory notes are sweetness and reason themselves. Schools are required to consult parents and the resulting documents must not be biased in favour of either party, nor vague in their requirements of one party and more specific for another. In principle this sounds great, but in practice it seems clear to me that it is more often schools and teachers that have power over parents.

What if I didn't agree with the school ethos? Could I actually do anything? Well, no, it seems not. One reason for this is that breaches of the Home School Agreement will not be actionable in the courts, although government advisory documents do little to highlight this point. So why should I sign the agreement? According to the DFES it is because children are more successful when school and parents work together, and Ofsted research proves it. Of course, some will say that if I am dissatisfied, it is my fault. I can after all go along to meetings and campaign for my local school to change its policies.

Sorry, but I don't believe it. Parent-school associations are generally dominated by small groups of the "usual suspects"; those committed or opinionated enough to get their voices heard. I can indeed go along and make my voice heard. But what if I were a single parent, unemployed, a member of an ethnic minority, or some other minority group? Then again, I don't have to sign the agreement – but I still have to abide by the rules. These may well be rules made by others, whose social position gives them more power or a greater voice.

I recently interviewed a few parents at my child's primary school about this legislation. The vast majority of parents at the school had signed the agreement. Curiously though, the parents I spoke to seemed to regard the legislation with bemusement. Most could not remember where they had put their copy of the agreement, nor what was in it. Many seemed to think it was a wonderful idea – for "other people" though, not fine upstanding citizens like themselves, who understand entirely what is needed. It seems that it is other people who don't look after their children properly, don't read to them, don't make them do their homework, or don't get them to school on time.

The last Secretary of State for Education, David Blunkett, put all this succinctly when he stated that it was teachers who "will teach children how to eat with a knife and fork and to socialise with others at meal time". Just what is your problem with chopsticks, David?

That's the problem with trying to govern through cultural measures. You can claim to be socially inclusive, but some groups will inevitably fall outside the charmed circle. Trying to enforce social inclusion – which is the effect of this legislation – and yet simultaneously smooth over conflict, inevitably leads to social exclusion in a society containing a range of cultures. The flip side of inclusion is exclusion. The Home School Agreement encapsulates these problems and offers us the contradictory advice that we can be simultaneously different and the same. At core though, "we" must be the same and conform and "they" must be like "us".

This is what I find most objectionable about the home-school legislation. It steps over the boundary between public and private, and intrudes into my family's private life. There is more to life than homework contracts. School is important and it has its place, but it should stay there. As for the Government's attempt to engineer social and economic success, its ministers should consider educationalist Basil Bernstein's advice: "schools cannot compensate for society". I keep remembering how Winston Smith was told that it would never be enough just to say that two plus two equalled five. You had to believe it. Hearts and minds had to be won. Can't we ever agree to disagree?

David Abbott is a parent. He has two children at primary school