Battle in Print: For subject-centred education: 5. teachers should teach and parents should parent

Kevin Rooney, 22 October 2010

These six essays are written by members of the Institute of Ideas’ Education Forum. They make the case for subject-centred education. Whilst the Lib-Con coalition nominally supports a return to subject-centred teaching, there’s in fact little coherence or sense of direction to their educational strategy. More specifically, we believe subject-centred education should be defended as a method of transmitting knowledge and understanding to new generations. It should be driven by an aspiration to create a society of truly educated citizens, and foster greater intellectual autonomy and freedom for everybody.

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5. Teachers should teach and parents should parent

In many ways, the education of our children is vested in both parents and teachers. Teachers rely on parents to create the right environment at home, ensure their children get to school every day, imbue them with an aspiration to learn and share responsibility for discipline. But once inside the school gate, responsibility for education shifts firmly to the teacher – the professional trained to transmit a body of knowledge to the pupil in their specialist subject area.

At least that’s how it used to be. Today, the relationship between teacher and parent has been redefined by successive governments to give parents a greater role in the education of their children. This may seen to support a subject-centred school system, and some parents do want subject-centred free schools. But the overall focus on parent power undermines the possibility of subject-centred teaching. 

Formalising informal relationships

A growing number of government initiatives are institutionalising this new relationship. Parents who may struggle to retrieve any memories of their own parents helping with their homework are now expected to do regular homework with their children. Some schools now include homework in new ‘Home-School Contracts’ regulating the parents’ role in various aspects of their children’s schooling. Open days and nights for parents proliferate. Gone are the days when parents’ evenings were a few minutes with a teacher focussed on a pupil’s academic achievements.

Whilst the Coalition’s decision to invite parents to set up and run schools has raised some eyebrows, the reality is the policy isn’t such a radical departure given the shift in responsibility for education away from teachers and towards parents. Former Education Minister Ed Balls has spoken out against the Coalition’s plans, but it was his government that introduced a radical new policy giving parents an unprecedented level of involvement and control in their children’s education.

An example of this process is online entitlement. This allows parents to ‘engage’ more with their children’s education by logging onto school computer records on every aspect of the child’s education at any time. From September 2010, all teachers have to spend time ensuring information on each child, normally compiled around the time of parents’ evening, is posted on the school website and updated regularly. Parents will be invited to go online from their home or work and check their child’s attendance, educational progress in each subject and general. It’s rumoured this is only the beginning – with some policy makers keen to extend it to cover individual goals, targets, and every class test result.

Empowering parents disempowers teachers

Online engagement is presented by government as ‘empowering’ parents. It’s hailed as a breakthrough in educational ‘transparency’. But using lots of positive words to describe something doesn’t make it positive. In fact, many other measures giving more power to parents could be seriously bad for education. It’s hard to see how the statutory online entitlement will not further reduce the autonomy of the teacher and erode trust between teacher and parent.

Good teaching requires discretion, trust, informality and at times pretty brutal assessments. Teachers may also want to discuss pupils’ behaviour and progress in terms which they may not elaborate on in discussion with parents. Every communication of this sort is soon to be available online for the purposes of transparency. Already teachers are being warned by head teachers to sanitise the language used and word reports in ways that will avoid conflict with parents. This suggests the move won’t even achieve the stated goal of honesty and transparency.

Furthermore, there’s a danger that in moving from interpersonal spoken communication to remote written exchanges, the tone of the parent-teacher relationship will shift. Previously informal relationships are redefined as more formal contractual ones. It’s imperative teachers and parents engage informally and voluntarily. There should be a clear separation of responsibilities so that teachers are allowed to teach and parents are allowed to parent.

But even if the government could prove online engagement is effective and empowers parents, it should be opposed because this would disempower teachers. This initiative is only the latest in a bewildering array of proposals which undermine the authority of the teacher in the classroom, steadily eroding any sense of the teacher’s autonomy. Fundamental to this are Ofsted inspections, which do little to monitor the quality and content of teaching, instead favouring banal tick lists, not only of objectives, but to ensure that starters, plenaries, lesson plans, self evaluations and so on are taking place.

Relevant schools; irrelevant education

On top of that, the government has also decided teachers are well placed to find answers to many of today’s social and political challenges. ‘Citizenship education’, now compulsory, encourages young people to become active ‘citizens’ by voting, protecting the environment and so on. ‘Personal health and social education’, also compulsory, tackles problems like obesity and teenage pregnancy. The latest offer, ‘capacity and resilience building’ aims at tackling the relationship building and bullying. And almost every inquiry by the great and the good into ‘what went wrong’ seems to recommend new roles for teachers. The ‘Every child matters’ policy framework started as a recommendation from the Climbié Inquiry into the tragic death of a young child. But now, this scheme requires all teachers to monitor their pupils for general well-being and any signs of unhappiness at home.

The plethora of requirements says nothing about the content of subject education. Neither does it ensure teachers get on with imparting a body of knowledge and developing pupils’ abilities to learn, analyse and ultimately think for themselves. This is a social function schools and teachers are uniquely able to discharge in a systematic fashion. Successive governments have obsessed over gaining legitimacy for the schools they direct. They’ve involved parents and provided schools with a greater role in society. But this has only succeeded in elevating process and narrow and immediate political priorities over subject teaching. Schools are undoubtedly more ‘open’, ‘transparent’ and ‘relevant’ to the wider society - but at what cost to education? 

With respect to online school reports, teachers, always pushed for time, will now spend more of that precious time engaged in form-filling, report writing, and ticking boxes. Robbed of their autonomy, teachers will experiment less and develop a process-driven mentality. This will promote caution and stifle creativity. All of this is the result of a formalization of what were previously informal relationships between teachers and parents, teachers and students and the freedom, space and autonomy of the teacher to decide how best to educate their students.

The real power of teachers

Iconic plays and films about education like The History Boys and Educating Rita shine a light on the transformative power of education where there are good relationships between pupil and teacher. Away from the prying eyes of parents and the state, and rising above the constraints of family background and social class, the combination of an inspiring teacher and the power of the subject can change lives.

The tragic reality taking place in our schools today is this potential is being abandoned without even a debate. Parent power in education sounds so positive as to be impossible to dismiss. But this process is likely to increase antagonism between parents and teachers. The focus on transparency and formalisation of relationships takes away the discretion of the teacher in the classroom.

Of course parents have the right to know how their child is progressing at school. But this genuine desire should be distinguished from the current attempt to transform an individual parent’s legitimate concern for their child into a new rather crude, amateur, mechanism for disciplining errant teachers.


head of social science, Queens’ School, Bushey, Hertfordshire; committee member, IoI Education Forum

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