Kevin Rooney, 1 October 2006
Expanding the role of parents in education has become a key policy goal of recent governments. In fact, a profound change is taking place in the relationships between families, pupils and schools. What was once a relationship largely based on trust and informality is now being increasingly formalised into carefully regulated contracts and transactions. Parent-school contracts and homework contracts on the one side and inspection and auditing of teachers on the other are now the norm. At the extreme end of this spectrum are truanting orders, fines and the jailing of parents as well as a rise in litigation, with parents suing both schools and teachers.
Of course parents have always played a role in their children’s education – choosing schools, supervising homework and attending parents’ evenings. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) rightly points out, ‘parents are a child’s first and enduring teachers – they play a crucial role in helping their children learn’. However, the line between private and public responsibility has been blurred as a consequence of recent developments. It is no longer clear exactly where the demarcation line lies between private family concerns and public or even statutory duties. Despite the extent and speed of these changes, few appear to have paused to seriously consider whether such changes are something we should welcome.
There are good reasons to suggest that making explicit requirements of parents in relation to schooling and extending the scope of rule making are positive developments. For example, the previously informal, traditional boundary between parents and teachers let many children slip through the educational cracks. Not all parents are necessarily sufficiently motivated and aspirational when it comes to their children’s education. Feckless and lazy parents are not just a media creation, and stand in stark contrast to the middle class and aspirational parents who are often devoted to their child’s development. In short, the contribution some parents make to their children’s education at home is what gives them the edge. Surely, therefore, the argument goes, we need to take measures and develop procedures which make a more level playing field by ensuring that every child receives the same degree of help and direction both in school and at home. Viewed from this perspective, many of the new codes and contracts betweens parents and teachers are simply a common sense attempt to improve our children’s educational prospects. The goal is to make sure that not just some but all parents face up to their responsibilities to help advance their children’s education.
Others, however, see dangerous trends and unintended consequences. For these critics, the changes amount to an insidious authoritarianism whereby parents are increasingly scrutinised and denied the autonomy to bring up their children as they so choose. Ironically, it is the parents who end up being treated like children, no longer being trusted to get on with raising their families without outside intervention in the form of contracts and ultimately the threat of sanctions. Champions of the new approach accuse the critics of exaggerating and scaremongering.
The starting point for establishing whether these changes are positive is to question some of the underlying assumptions of this new strategy.
So is increased parental involvement in schools an intrinsically good thing? While many parents need little encouragement to devote their evenings to helping little Johnny with his homework, are others pressured into doing so for fear of being labelled a bad parent and faced with sanctions? Is the line becoming blurred between educating children and re-educating parents to raise their children in accordance with official guidelines?
What constitutes good parenting? Is that definition being challenged or reshaped by the codification of parent-school relationships? Is a good parent one who is prepared to immerse him or herself in every detail of their child’s education and life? What if parents prefer to spend their homelife playing with their kids or simply relaxing after a hard day’s work? And what of those who dare to think (or even worse voice) the unthinkable – that teachers should be free to teach and parents to parent? Should the latter view be seen as outdated and irresponsible or treated with respect and honoured?
Most people over 40 struggle to remember their own parents spending any time helping them with homework. Today, parents are told almost from day one in primary school that their child’s development is intimately linked to how much support he or she gets at home. Though this claim is challenged by several recent studies, it is the case that many parents, increasingly anxious about their children’s future, now regard homework as a ‘joint enterprise’. Surveys indicate that, on average, parents spend around seven hours a week on homework duties. The message today seems to be that your children’s performance in school is regarded as a direct reflection of the quality of support they receive at home. The parents of those children who are performing badly at school must thus share, or indeed even shoulder the blame for, their child’s underachievement. Homework thus becomes an informal instrument for assessing parental behaviour.
One of the less obvious consequences of this new approach is that anxious parents find it difficult to draw the line between helping and cheating. After several years of government-led campaigns to encourage parents to spend more time on their children’s homework, there has now been an outcry over growing evidence that some competitive parents are doing the homework rather than helping. But it seems fairly certain that the growing pressures on parents to deliver will tempt more of them into availing themselves of the variety of opportunities for cheating.
The problem of expanding the role of parents in education is also that it can appear as a form of ‘outsourcing’, relying on parents to take onboard an increasingly bigger chunk of what should be the school’s job – to teach and educate. Secondly, if things go wrong it locates the source of the problem with failing parents, rather than poor teaching or failing schools. A third issue is that once you ‘manipulate’ parents’ concern for their children by drawing them further into the educational process, it’s a natural step that they start acting as their children’s advocates in their dealings with teachers. Parents feel more confident about challenging aspects of their child’s education within the classroom, resulting in the professional authority of the teacher being increasingly called into question. Witness the scenes played out in schools up and down the country with angry parents demanding that schools switch to using the newly fashionable phonics technique to teach young children to read. The previously informal relationship, based on trust and respect between teacher and parent, begins to break down and is replaced by contracts and codes that are often characterised by mutual distrust. The problem is that contractual relationships, with their roots in the legal process, assume a starting point of potential conflict of interest with the school. Recent research shows that teachers in turn adopt a defensive teaching posture. This scenario poses the risk that, far from raising educational standards, these new policies end up encouraging safe, formulaic teaching and discouraging innovation and creativity. Because of the fear of criticism and in particular litigation, teachers have become more guarded and less spontaneous in the classroom.
The real irony here is that the result of this unprecedented government intervention into teaching and parenting is much more likely to be the undermining of the quality of our children’s education. Far from raising standards, this approach risks undermining the authority and autonomy of parents and teachers – all the qualities crucial to good teaching. Teaching by prescription, contracts and constant observation are as likely to produce a collapse in confidence as they are a rise in standards, which is the ostensible aim. In my experience, ticking boxes, forcing contracts on parents and external scrutiny tend to erode the risk-taking, experimentation and passion that very often characterise the best teaching in schools and inspire our children to meet their full potential.
Kevin Rooney is a teacher