Parental power is anathema to good schooling

I am always grateful that my teachers were brave enough to instil ideas inimical to our parents
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The Independent Online

It was a well-behaved class, attentive, no fidgeting, no giggles at all when I addressed the Secondary Heads' Association conference on Saturday. Unlike the day before when the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly instructed the delegates on the basics of education. Then they were observed talking among themselves, rolling their eyes and being unruly. (But they did not jeer - that was just journalists beefing up the story.)

It was a well-behaved class, attentive, no fidgeting, no giggles at all when I addressed the Secondary Heads' Association conference on Saturday. Unlike the day before when the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly instructed the delegates on the basics of education. Then they were observed talking among themselves, rolling their eyes and being unruly. (But they did not jeer - that was just journalists beefing up the story.)

Maybe Jamie Oliver had been called in and had taken turkey twizzlers off the conference canapé selection to stop this misbehaviour when I was there. Or it is just possible the headteachers wanted to debate ideas and ideals rather than the forms and targets and tables of the Education Secretary?

Education is going to be the next focus in this overlong election campaign and the parties will quarrel endlessly over which of them will give parents the greatest power and choice in the way their children are taught. To me this is anathema.

Of course, as a parent, I have to make decisions about which schools, what subjects and how to push my children to work harder and widen their horizons. (Yes I am a pushy parent, and make no apologies for it.) Citizens have the right to demand the best education for their young ones and to fight back when they are dumped in no-hope institutions.

But to give parents power over what is taught, and how, is to kill the future and to handcuff teachers. Schools are there to take children beyond the worlds of their families, to liberate them from the past that lodges in their parents, to direct them to places we cannot even imagine.

Remember Khalil Gibran's beautiful lines: "You may give [your children] your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backwards nor tarries with yesterday."

When it comes to technology Britons understands this - not even the most conservative and nostalgic columnists such as Peter Hitchens on the subject of educationwould argue that we should burn school computers and get the children using only pencils and erasers again because that is how their grandparents were taught and it made them good.

But in many other key areas cultural conservatism is descending upon this nation like a fog from the past. We are witnessing a dreadful closing off of possibilities, comfort policies which pander to the demands of traditionalist parents and communities and are driven by the reactionary impulses of this cabinet and the hopelessly backward Tories.

So it is that, today, we have to live with more faith-based schools and a young Muslim girl winning the right to shroud herself at school because that is what her family expects. And senseless English parents clamouring endlessly for the right to banish Diwali from school celebrations because that is not what they were forced to do when they were young. (Yes, obviously. That's why you are this ignorant.)

I am forever grateful that some of my teachers were brave enough to instil in us ideas which were inimical to those held by our parents and communities. That they took on their more conventional colleagues, broke rules, took risks and made us into questioning little upstarts and worthy rebels instead of a generation of little obedients. Our poor old British teachers today would never be allowed to get away with such subversive behaviour.

Mrs Mann, my English teacher is the true heroine of the one-woman show I have been performing as part of the RSC's new work programme based on my life as a young girl in Uganda and my love of Shakespeare. Mrs Mann came into our predominantly Asian school (with a minority of black pupils) and shook things up by producing Romeo and Juliet with Asians playing the Capulets and Africans playing the Montagues. I was Juliet. Shame and scandal followed and my father never spoke to me again until he died.

Africans in the early Sixties had grown to despise us, even the massive good we did. Asians thought of Africans as inferior beings. After independence we had to make a different country. Mrs Mann made us break from those deep prejudices. She came to the show in London on the final night and I publicly told her that whatever had happened within my family, she was right to do what she did.

I often talk to pupils in schools and am increasingly appalled at how poor they are at challenging each other's ideas, how they reproduce the prejudices of their parents and tribes, how unfree they are.

These kids are going to be living a future which is more speedy, interconnected, driven by egalitarianism and democratisation and cultural mixing. But as Nick Tate, the education pundit, once said: "We don't really debate education and its fundamental purposes in this country. How we educate young people relates to our social vision, how we see the world and ourselves." And that, Mrs Kelly, is what you should have spoken about last Friday.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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