Michael McMahon: The children are bad enough. But it's the parents I blame

They can't share, listen, eat with a knife and fork, wash their hands, or even wipe their own bottoms

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There's been so much violence and vileness reported in the world of education recently that one is left wondering what is going on in our schools. At the Old Bailey last Wednesday, a boy admitted raping a 28-year-old teacher. The week before, a TV programme revealed the low-level savageries many teachers suffer daily. I found the swearing, disobedience and disruptiveness unsettlingly familiar. I taught in an inner-city comprehensive until five years ago. Things have clearly not got better, as we report in The Independent on Sunday today.

There's been so much violence and vileness reported in the world of education recently that one is left wondering what is going on in our schools. At the Old Bailey last Wednesday, a boy admitted raping a 28-year-old teacher. The week before, a TV programme revealed the low-level savageries many teachers suffer daily. I found the swearing, disobedience and disruptiveness unsettlingly familiar. I taught in an inner-city comprehensive until five years ago. Things have clearly not got better, as we report in The Independent on Sunday today.

The annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers last weekend discussed the main cause of the increasingly poor behaviour of children: the inadequacy, irresponsibility and selfishness of many parents. There was unanimous support for a motion calling for compulsory parenting classes for the worst of them. "By far and away the greatest problem is the number of pupils who lack basic social standards," said the association's general secretary, David Hart. He's dead right. It only takes one child whose parents haven't taught him the meaning of the word "no" to wreck a lesson, and in many schools there are classes with rather more than that.

Children are now sent to school by parents who have not taught them how to wash their hands, eat with a knife and fork, or even to wipe their own bottoms. They can't share. They don't know how to co-operate. They don't know how to listen. To teach kids like this is impossible, so teachers end up doing the parents' job, too. It doesn't always work ­ in a class of 30, how could it? ­ and many children drift through to secondary schools in sad, unsocialised bubbles on their own.

I taught lessons in which I explained a task carefully to the class, asked if there were any questions, and watched half the children in the room put their hands up. Each asked politely what I wanted them to do. They weren't trying to be awkward. They just hadn't listened. They waited to be instructed individually. They could not see themselves as part of a group.

Parents who don't teach their children how to relate to others also tend not to explain the difference between right and wrong. But they do teach them that they have rights, which are inviolable, and that there are duties, which others owe to them. I once threw a 13-year-old girl's comic out of the window, after telling her three times to put it away. "I'll have you done for that, Sir!" she said, and she did. The next day, the head told me off.

Take a stand against such perceived rights and you're in trouble. The NAHT heard how bad that can be. A primary head reported how, she, her family, staff and governors had been terrorised by the parents of three children she had excluded from a football tournament for bad behaviour. They received threatening phone calls and their car tyres were slashed. Five other heads reported physical assaults by parents: 10 more reported violent threats.

"Although we are still talking about a small minority of parents, this is what is happening on the front line far too frequently," said David Hart. He wants heads to be allowed to exclude pupils when the threatening parental behaviour demonstrates that the home-school relationship has broken down. He's dead right there, too, though one would hope that they would only ever use such a power reluctantly. They probably would. Heads and teachers choose their profession because they want to help people. They don't like admitting that they can't.

But chucking out the "small minority" that rock the boat and threaten to sink it is one thing; getting the rest to row together is something else. Excluding individuals for extreme behaviour might be a necessary evil, but it won't solve the much wider and deeper problem of poor parenting in general. Nor will keeping all parents safely beyond the school gates.

To read some reports of the NAHT conference you might think that is just where heads want them. David Hart said that allowing irresponsible parents to become school governors was like "putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar" and that governing bodies were "overloaded" with parents more interested in the needs of their own children than those of the school.

Whether either judgement is true or the rhetoric is appropriate is a matter of opinion. But his remarks at least draw attention to one fact that contributes to the selfish stroppiness of parents. Now our politicians have redefined education as a commodity, parents see their relationship with their children's school as one of supplier and customer. Schools dream up ever-more-fanciful advertising slogans and call them "mission statements", while the politicians crank up parental expectations with the illusory promise of choice.

Like all customers, educational consumers are defined by their rights, not by their responsibilities ­ and like all consumers their main concern is to make sure they get their money's worth. Combine such an attitude with poor parenting skills or pushiness, and you get the kind of carry-on of which David Hart complained. His complaint was not that it is universal or even widespread, but that there is enough of it about to make life difficult for heads.

When the Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, told the other heads' union, the Secondary Heads Association, that they should be "ever more responsive to the parents and communities [they] serve" last March, they jeered. The sub-text was as patronising as it was obvious. They were being asked to do what they had all been doing for years, and it was a reminder that the educational customers are still calling the shots.

Let's hope that these are signs that the men and women who have laboured for so long under a target-driven, micro-managed, statistic-suffocated bureaucracy have at last resolved to reclaim their patch. Only when they have shaken the squat toad of government from their shoulders will heads and teachers have the time, space and energy to do what their vocation requires of them ­ to co-operate confidently and positively with parents in their efforts to bring up fulfilled and well-adjusted children. Almost all of them would be grateful for such help.

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