First rule of any contract: know when to break rules

My daughter went to school a free spirit but soon she'd do anything to please her teacher

Ann Treneman
Thursday 12 November 1998 01:02

BEFORE YOU read this, I would like you to sign something. It's nothing really, just a little contract so that I know that you will not disgrace yourself - or me - while you read this. Here's the deal. I promise not to make any spelling errors or too many wild leaps of logic and, in return, I want you to promise not to swear or make any negative comments. In fact, you must agree to read this to the end before making any comments at all.

And, if you are in a public place, please do not upset your neighbour by shaking the paper! Instead, fold it into quarters and, when switching from one side to another, do so as quietly as possible. Now, please sign in the margin so we can begin.

Ludicrous? Not if you happen to be a member of the Blair Government and its Dalek tendency. And no, I'm sure they would tell us that it's nothing to do with being a control freak or anything. They would say that contracts let everyone know exactly where they stand, and what is expected of them.

At least that seems to be the idea behind the "home-school agreements" unveiled this week by the Department of Education. The scheme, to come into force in September next year, proposes contracts to be signed by schools, parents, and children as young as five.

The first thing that is suspect here is the content itself. You do not need to be even five to figure out that this contract was drawn up by grown-ups - and boring ones too - who think only in very straight lines. The schools get off fairly lightly. They have to promise only to inform parents of their children's progress and to encourage children to do their best and to take care of the school and its surroundings.

Note that it says nothing about providing decent surroundings in the first place, or textbooks, or classrooms with no more than 25 children. Now that would have made it much more interesting.

For parents it's a little harder. We have to make sure that our children arrive on time and attend regularly, and that we go to open evenings and attend achievement assemblies. Over the past 10 years I think I've failed on all but one of those. However, at least I can see that these are desirable goals, providing the trains run on time, your employer gives you time off and you can always find the peanut butter for that day's sandwiches in the first place you look.

The same cannot be said about what the children are asked to sign. The model contract, supplied by the Government, requests them to keep the following "golden rules":

l I will take care of the equipment and the buildings.

l I will walk inside the building.

l I will talk quietly.

l I will be friendly.

l I will keep my hands and feet to myself.

l I will be helpful.

These "promises" have nothing to do with learning and creativity and using your brain. That would require promises such as: "I will ask lots of questions and I will be curious at all times and I will sometimes not do exactly what you tell me to do." That's how you learn. This contract is about controlling a child's behaviour. I'm sure that having a classroom full of such children would be very nice (until you nodded off), but is it really such a good idea for children to want to be quiet, friendly and helpful at all times?

Children already get a huge dose of "shoulds" thrown at them the moment they walk into a classroom. My first daughter went to school as a free spirit but, within a year, would have done almost anything to please her teacher. I did not find that comforting. "Grown-ups are not always right," I would say (noting the exception of myself, of course). "You've got to question authority." At which, she would just shake her head at me.

I'm not going to sign this contract and I will ask my children not to sign. I also know that they, who want to be "good", will go against my advice and sign. But none of this is going to keep the teacher awake at night because these contracts are not aimed at me or my children. They are aimed at the parents who really do not give a toss whether their child goes to school at all, and at children who chronically misbehave.

But parents are negligent for reasons that cannot be put right by signing a piece of paper. And a child who shouts, swears and kicks will not know how to stop just because he or she has scribbled something on a dotted line. To change such behaviour requires expertise and, of course, lots of money.

The Government must have thought of all this, though, and still they don't seem to get it. Ministers, it is reported, think that pupils should be encouraged to commit themselves to educational goals as early as possible. And for parents, the contracts "acknowledge the essential partnership needed between them and the school".

The Government also promises that no child will be refused admission or expelled if she or he does not sign, or if they do sign but break their promise. This immediately makes me suspicious, but that's because I don't trust promises from government, or, for that matter, contracts.

This is the most puzzling thing of all about this scheme. Why encourage children to believe in contracts when we live in a world when no one pays any attention to them? I wish they did. For instance, I first read about this on a train. It wasn't easy because I was impersonating a sardine at the time. If only Connex Southeast had "acknowledged our essential partnership", I'm sure such a thing would never have happened. And I can only assume that the thief who robbed me this week would never have done so if he had committed himself to the golden rules at an earlier date.

Even when contracts exist, they never seem to work. If they did, then there would be no small print and warranties really would cover things that go wrong. Good employees need never fear for their jobs, because their contract says it is illegal to fire them except for incompetence. And everyone who qualifies for NHS dental treatment would find a dentist to treat them.

It's a nice world, but it is not the one we live in. Education is about more than simply learning how to read and write and do sums. It is also about life, and how to get on. Sometimes it's no good being quiet and helpful, and never running when you should walk. Life is also about knowing when to break the rules and being clear that others will break them too. And that's not covered in any contract.

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