Fecklessness, not poverty, is the trouble with parents: The updated parents' charter puts too much stress on rights and too little on duties, says Susan Elkin

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The Independent Online
SOME people make rotten parents - although, of course, it is politically incorrect to state such an unpalatable truth aloud.

Fortunately, the majority of us are adequate, if not good, parents struggling all the time to do what we understand to be for the best. But there are those who don't. They are a minority, thank goodness, but in some schools it is a sizeable one. Almost every school, moreover, has some pupils whose parents, or quasi-parents, do not or cannot teach them how to behave conformably. There is vociferous animosity against their children's school. From an early age such children choose how they dress and what and when they eat, so they are often inappropriately clad for the conditions or for work, and often undernourished.

I have taught teenage girls who are perpetually pasty and pinched. The skimpiest 'school' skirt overhangs a two-foot expanse of goose- pimply bare leg when it's below freezing outside. Then there are boys and girls who are given a pound or more each morning in lieu of breakfast - for these problems are usually born of fecklessness, apathy or the pursuit of a quiet life rather than of poverty. What do they buy? Why, a bag of crisps, a chocolate bar and a fizzy drink, of course. The 'meal' is consumed in the street on the way to school or, if not forcefully prevented, during first lesson because late arrival at school is a commonplace. There is also a high absence rate among this sort: either condoned truancy because no one at home takes school seriously, and/or a succession of lengthy minor illnesses, probably not unconnected with an unhealthy lifestyle.

Attempts by schools to make constructive suggestions or - worse - to discipline the children often meet open parental hostility. How well I remember, when I was Head of Upper School, the mother who burst furiously into my office, having deliberately entered the school through a side door, breaching all the school's security precautions. I had been fairly firm with her errant child, and she had come 'up the school' with a vengeance. The incident could have been very ugly, had I had not, by chance, had a colleague with me. What price home/school partnership?

That is the school scenario in which I have taught for a quarter of a century, and it is no less disturbing because these descriptions refer to a minority of families. Then, on Saturday, my copy of Our Children's Education: The Updated Parent's Charter, in its neat little plastic bag, dropped through my letter box.

It is a valiant and sensible idea to spell out the Government's range of educational reforms and achievements in its entirety. And criticisms of the pounds 3m budget are just the usual knee-jerk, anti-government fulminations from those with political axes to grind: it is small beer in terms of national expenditure. It is right to tell parents what their entitlements are, and right too that the charter should be distributed universally. You can't rely on schools, as the Government found in 1991 when anarchic headteachers refused to circulate the first Parents' Charter. Besides, widespread dissemination of this information should remind everyone that education is fundamental to national growth and development and affects every citizen, irrespective of age, stage and status.

No, my problem with the charter is that, in a way which is surely symptomatic of a perceived need to concede to 'progressive' thinking, it lays too much emphasis on the rights of parents and too little on duties. Parents mustn't be 'patronised' so the substandard minority just continues aggressively - or apathetically - unco- operative. In a 30-page booklet, only two short paragraphs, on pages 25 and 26, hint gently, and almost apologetically, that schools cannot do their work in a vacuum. They need support from parents, who also have a few responsibilities. There follow brief, courteous remarks about the parental role in behaviour, punctuality, attendance and homework facilities. And that only after pages and detailed pages sternly spelling out what schools will and must do.

The trouble with written material of this sort lies in its tendency to incense the soi-disant educationally knowledgeable who are organised into pressure groups such as the Campaign for State Education (Case) and the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations (NCPTA). Predictably, the charter was used by them as a publicity opportunity for complaints about class sizes and school buildings, neither of which, though important, were relevant.

The deafening howls of outrage that charters and the like evoke from the protesting classes tend to conceal the fact that such communications often fail to touch those at whom information and guidance should primarily be targeted. Inadequate parents might not want advice, but, believe me, they need it.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, remarked jovially at the launch of the charter that it contained nothing about porridge and mittens. Sadly, there are some in the community who actually need very down-to-earth help in raising the level of their 'parenting skills' if their children are to stand any chance whatsoever of fulfilling their educational potential. Can the Government do anything about that? I'm afraid it will need something more radical than a charter.