Deborah Orr: Why do teachers try to deflect criticism for everything that goes wrong on to parents?

They should be allies, concerned with the best interests of pupils and their community
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The Independent Online

Here's an odd contradiction. At the weekend, the National Association of Head Teachers was told that many middle-class children were under-performing at school because their parents were subjecting them to "loving neglect". Eating what they liked, going to bed too late, watching too much television, they were turning up at school e-numbered-up, heads filled with pop-cultural pap, and absolutely twitching with fatigue. This is not, it was stressed by general secretary Mick Brookes, a problem only seen among feckless or irresponsible families. Instead it runs across the social classes.

Yet yesterday, Parliament wrestled with the thorny problem of how to stop state schools from cherry-picking middle-class children, who are greatly desired by certain state schools because they are reckoned to boost league-table results. In order to combat such nefarious practices, the Government suggests banning schools not just from interviewing parents, but from asking anything at all about the background of prospective pupils, for fear that this might be a class-and-affluence giveaway. One has to ask why the latter is so necessary, if the former is worth worrying about.

Here's another odd contradiction. Again at the head teachers' conference, Mr Brookes asserted that schools would become a "babysitting service" if the Government's plans for extended school hours ever came to fruition. Children might end up spending up to 50 hours a week at school, with teachers seeing more of them than their parents.

Mr Brookes must know surely that for a good number of pupils this is already happening. Working parents are sometimes forced to come up with a patchwork of childcare options to meet the demands of a corporate culture that demands a solid 40 hours a week in the office (at the very least), and a government that won't agree to a European working time directive defining full-time work as 37 and a half hours each week.

Yet the alternative is surely even less attractive to teachers. An ICM poll published yesterday reported that Britain's low birth rate was due to young adults choosing "having fun" and "getting rich" instead of having children. The institute for Public Policy Research countered immediately that this was not the full story. The think-tank claims that young women are making this choice because "they face a huge financial 'fertility penalty' if they have children earlier in life". It recommends tackling the problem of decreasing birth rates with "improved family friendly entitlements, a tackling of the gender pay gap and more state-supported childcare to enable people to have the number of children they want, without damaging their careers". For what Mr Brookes has to say, it appears that schools should avoid playing their part in giving such support.

This attitude is worrying. Teachers and parents ought to be allies, concerned with the best interests of pupils and of the community in which they live. Yet there is a rhetoric style creeping in to the political discourse that teachers engage in that seeks to deflect criticism for all that goes wrong on to parents.

Who can blame teachers for this? Too often in the past schools have been treated by government as processing centres that can pile children high and socially engineer them cheaply. A good example of this tendency was the idea, floated early in the lifetime of Blair's government, that schools should be teaching more about diet and particularly pushing the message that people should eat five portions of fruit and veg a day.

Perfectly laudable, except that as we know, the schools themselves were feeding children unhealthy slop. Yet since the supposed revolution in school dinners was set in motion by Jamie Oliver only recently, it seems somewhat presumptuous for a teaching union to state that the problem with children's nutrition comes categorically from parents across the social classes. It is a consequence of the sort of society we have developed into, not some specific issue that originates with, and must be cured by, parents alone.

This constant and dishonest focus on the failings of parents is a real part of the problem. No wonder respondents to the ICM poll see "fun" as something that ends with parenthood. Being a parent is constantly portrayed as some sort of ideological battleground, a highly politicised and deeply public responsibility, and one, to boot, that the vast majority of adults are failing miserably to rise to.

The great clash, supposedly, is between authoritarian parenting - a return to the seen-and-not-heard-ethos of the Victorian era - and liberal parenting - characterised as a frightening hangover from the 1960s when the idea was that love children would be passed around communes, learning what they wanted to from the plethora of wise, skilled people on acid around them.

Mr Brookes's attack is clearly on the people he sees as liberal parents who "love their children too much to say 'no' ". As such, it has been gleefully pounced upon by the Daily Mail, an organisation that preaches family values while insisting that its own staff turn presenteeism into a cult religion. In this weird world, you're a liberal parent if you put your child's name on his school jumper in laundry marker instead of embroidered ribbon, or if you give shop-bought cakes to the school fair once in a while.

Yet, liberals are indeed just as mad when it comes to defending their children's less charming actions. Some parents do allow their children to watch totally unsuitable telly in the name of liberal parenting, or to swear, or to smoke in the home. This isn't even parenting, of course, even if it's liberal, because it is usually about getting your children to put your needs first, rather than the other way around. And it never helps children, because allowing them to do at home stuff they aren't allowed to do at school is just asking for trouble.

But, increasingly, it is becoming apparent that schools are just as likely to find difficult pupils come from an authoritarian background. I've been told, off the record, about situations in which parents in London, when confronted with evidence that their children have been behaving badly at school, say that their children need corporal punishment to be kept in line. In his book Yob Nation, Francis Gilbert talks about children kept under such a strict regime at home that they see school as a place where they can get away with anything.

Yet the vast majority of parents are simply trying to forge the best course they can between the extremes the experts tussle over. Few people fail to grasp that societies need behavioural norms, and that children need these to be revealed to them clearly. Instead, the adult world seems bent on presenting such issues as a mini "clash of civilisations", when the truth is much less contradictory and much more helpful.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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