Deborah Orr: There is only so much that schools can do

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The Independent Online

The British today are, in so many ways, the most fortunate human beings to have walked the earth. But neither we, nor our children, appear to see things that way at all. Yet another report has confirmed what most people already know – that, on the whole our society is not overendowed with happy bunnies, be they adult or child. When one considers the plethora of good reasons that experts, professionals, parents and children are willing to offer as to why this should be, it is hardly surprising.

Since the report concerns itself with the primary school environment, education itself is by definition looked at long and hard. Findings echo the complaints that teachers have been making for years – the curriculum is too rigid, there is too much testing, and there is too much emphasis on standards and results.

Parents and pupils question the wisdom of handing children homework too young, or even, especially in the case of boys, to be insisting on formal education too early. Pupils are bored, and they play up.

These are the issues that it is within the remit of the report's authors to press for further action on, even though it may, nevertheless, be an uphill struggle to achieve broad consensus here. Many commentators believe there is too much child-centred education in schools already, rather than too little. But the really interesting point is that despite all the dissatisfaction with schools, parents tend to view the educational environment as providing a bulwark against the wider fears they have about their children's development.

Parents admit that they worry about the lack of freedom that their children have, and also about the electronic entertainment that they feel is relied on too much within the closeted lives of their families, even though both are related problems that only parents can solve. More broadly, parents worry about the aspects of modern life that are all-pervasive, the noise of celebrity culture and materialism that dominates not just the television but also the rest of the media and much adult discourse.

Even if parents strictly ration access to this wider culture at home, it seeps in, through billboards, free newspapers and the like. Parents view school as an antidote to all this, a place where their child can go and take part in an independent social existence away from such pressures (even though the playground is often suffused with such influences).

Clearly too, in many cases, that reliance goes much too far. There have been repeated complaints from the 750 people interviewed about poor-quality parenting, and a tendency to leave all aspects of a child's socialisation to school rather than home.

It is worth remembering that schools cannot, and should not, be considered responsible for all that seems wrong with British children today. One only need look at the limited success of Jamie Oliver's crusade to change the content of school meals to observe that without support at home, the attempts of schools to intervene in lifestyle failings are highly circumscribed. Children may be unhappy at school, but there is only so much that school can do about that. Unfortunately.

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