E Jane Dickson: There's no point in teachers blaming the parents

The idea of docking benefits from irresponsible parents is beyond crazy

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Once again, parents are on the naughty step. This week Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, spoke out against affluent parents who are failing to impose adequate standards of behaviour on their children. "Many teachers," said Dr Bousted, "feel they are working their socks off under an extremely rigid accountability framework to get children to learn at school, but are not being supported at home."

In particular, she speculated, "It is often the well-off middle classes that buy off their children through the computer and TV. That then isolates them within the home, and then they're surprised when their child isn't coming to school ready to learn." The Manchester Branch of the ATL went one further, calling for docking of child benefit payments for "parents of disruptive pupils".

Dr Bousted's remarks are understandable, possibly true and utterly pointless. Full marks to her for not fingering the "feral youth" who are the usual suspects in any debate over discipline in schools – come the revolution, I'd make it a civic offence to use this abusive, animal term of children – but I'm not convinced that scapegoating any socio-economic group is a useful contribution to the crisis management of education in Britain.

Anyone with a child in state education knows that there are good and bad parents in every salary bracket. Parental responsibility is a defining factor in a child's success, but some parents, for widely diverse reasons, are more competent than others. The more competent may share Dr Bousted's frustrations, but it is not, by definition, their children who are most at risk of falling through a grievously tattered net.

It is unlikely that less competent parents will be hanging on the latest knuckle-rapping pronouncements from the ATL, while the idea of docking benefits from irresponsible parents is beyond crazy; despite the special warning to the middle classes, such a measure will clearly hit the least advantaged hardest. We might as well set failing parents in the stocks – I know plenty of righteous souls who would line up to throw the first cabbage – but it won't help children in the classroom. Teachers, like any professionals, must work with the material; the more rackety a child's home life, the more urgent the requirement for stability and discipline at school. Drawing fire from an unequal and inadequate education system by blaming parents is not a practical solution.

The lovely, fast-fading ideal behind the 1944 Education Act was that children in state education should be neither preferred nor disadvantaged by their personal circumstances. Educationalists concerned about the effect of class on a child's progress might usefully revisit this principle.

While there is no useful metric for effective parenting across the socio-economic scale, there is a wealth of data on the relationship between family income and educational progress. Last year's Social Mobility Report confirmed that only 35 per cent of Britain's poorest children gained five GSCEs as opposed to 63 per cent of the better off.

Leaving aside the growth of the independent sector – a damning enough indictment of successive education policies – there has been a disastrous polarisation of rich and poor within the state system. Grammar schools, conceived as the portal to social mobility, are now pretty much the preserve of those whose parents can shell out for tutoring fees to get them through a competitive entrance exam.

Those who can buy property at a hugely inflated premium in the catchment area of high performing comprehensives or equip their children with expensive accomplishments to gain "special proficiency" places. Now, under the guise of parental choice, we are facing the possible introduction of "free schools", run by parents, but financed by the state. There may be advantages to such a system (for those who get in), but I doubt social cohesion will be one of them.

You cannot standardise parenting. It should not be impossible to provide a decent standard of genuinely comprehensive education. If the comprehensive system is to retain the children of academically ambitious parents it must revise the rigid anti-elitism, which in too many schools knocks away the only chance of advancement some children will ever have.

That means teaching to the top as well as to the middle; it means streaming or at least setting in key subjects; it means teaching an academic curriculum which can compete with the private sector. (It was, I recall, Mary Bousted who suggested that for today's children, Shakespeare is less relevant than "life skills".)

Above all, it means getting a handle on discipline. Parents can and should instil good behaviour at home, but for six hours a day this is the proper responsibility of the school. A zero-tolerance policy on disruptive behaviour comes at a cost – detentions have to be supervised, playgrounds policed, extra homework has to be marked – but is it not a cost worth paying? It may be too late to knock respect for education into some parents. Surely their children deserve a second chance.

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