Are parents to blame for schools that fail?

Fran Abrams asks if a report by MPs is justified
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THERE is a list pinned to the door of the year five classroom at St Luke's with St Paul's primary school in Tower Hamlets, east London, bearing appointment times for parents to meet teachers. Less than half have signed up.

Attendance at such events has risen recently, and four out of five will eventually stir themselves to come in. But the head teacher, Sally Carr, admits that some of her parents do not see much point in education.

St Luke's with St Paul's was one of the schools mentioned in a parliamentary report last week on inner-city schools. It accused parents in these areas of short-changing their children through indifference or even open hostility to education. In some areas schools had to put up with frequent abuse and occasional violence, it said. Mrs Carr agrees with every word.

"There has been a lack of respect for schools and what they stand for. We still have parents who see education as not being their job. One of the attitudes round here is 'there has never been anything for us and there never will be'," she says.

Mostly it is the mums who come in to see the teachers. Some of the dads only come to cause trouble. Mrs Carr has suffered physical violence in the past.

No one is saying that all of these parents are failing their children, but few people seem to dispute that some of them are.

There are practical difficulties, of course: a quarter of the pupils come from one-parent families, many of them teenage mothers who struggle to cope. The council flats which surround the school do not even have enough space for a dining table where a family can eat together, let alone for a desk or a quiet area.

But there is more than that. Parents who have gained little from education pass on their attitudes to their offspring. Susan Armstrong, the year one teacher, says she can see this rubbing off on even the youngest pupils: "I have got five and six year-olds who think they are never going to work. If they hear their parents saying there are no jobs out there, they pick it up," she says.

The school does its best to help its parents, and a former head teacher works here one day a week as a counsellor for families in trouble. But Mrs Carr says she has reluctantly had to cut down on the number of parents popping into the school - the building's open plan simply does not allow it.

"Parents used to come in effing and blinding and shouting from one end of the building to the other. You have to structure it," she says. Now parents are welcome in school at the end of the day, but not at the beginning.

This is known in the area as a "white" school, with only one pupil in eight coming from a Bangladeshi family compared with 50 per cent across the borough as a whole. That too, brings problems. Racial tension is high in the area, and the school governors have had to warn parents that they will be asked to leave if they make racist remarks on the premises.

It is not just the staff who agree that a minority of parents here have bad attitudes. Lynda Curley is a parent who is also chair of governors. Despite having left school at 16 she is off to university in September, and is proud that her daughter now assumes that she will go, too. But she also knows what goes on round these parts. Her own kids complain when she sends them to bed at 9.30pm on a school night because their friends are allowed to play outside until 10.30.

"I have witnessed incidents where a child is told off for swearing at a teacher and the parent comes in and says 'what have you been f---ing talking to my child like that for?" she says.

Parents here agree that in many cases such aggression is born of frustration. Many people in areas like this suffer from low self-esteem and often fail to express themselves verbally, especially with comparatively articulate, middle-class teachers.

At home, most parents try their best to help their children with their school work. But they admit they are under pressure. One parent tries to read with her daughter three times a week, another does so more frequently but finds the only real opportunity is over the breakfast table. No one here has bought practice papers for national curriculum tests - standard practice in the leafy suburbs. Most say their children watch a fair amount of television or videos.

The MPs who visited the school and who produced last week's report were full of good intentions, the parents feel, and in many respects their conclusions were right. But, they say, these people do not know what life is like for a single parent trying to bring up several children on benefit in a council flat where the noise from the trains and the traffic never abates.

Lynda Curley thinks the House of Commons Select Committee on Education could perhaps have spent a little less time pontificating and a little more thinking of solutions.

"These government reports are all the same," she says. "They spend hundreds of thousands of pounds finding out what everybody in the pub knows anyway. They should have gone down the Alfred on a Saturday night."