Throughout my teaching career and certainly when I was head teacher, I believed that schools should be supportive of parents and recognise the important role that they play in the education of their children. As parents my wife and I were always committed to supporting our sons’ schools in any way that we could. We were similarly focused on supporting their learning whether this was through help with homework, attending parents’ evenings or transporting them to music lessons, swimming classes, cricket coaching or scouts. In these simple acts we were doing no more than the majority of parents want to do for their children.
It is no secret that there are some parents who for a variety of reasons do not offer the levels of support to their children that we would all wish to see. Is there a teacher anywhere who has not at some time been engaged in staffroom conversations about “the parents we never see” or those who are seen as inept or even negligent? I am sure that this has been the case throughout history. I am equally sure that even those of us who would regard ourselves as being good parents have, at some point, been less than perfect in our support of our children or their schools.
A conversation with a PhD student this morning led me to look at today’s Times newspaper. This was prompted by the obvious anger and furious response that this particular student, herself a parent and teacher, had to a feature on the front page. The article about the role of parents in the education of their children, or rather the outburst that prompted it to feature so prominently in the Times is reported across the UK media and has raised both hackles and questions. My own reaction to the reported messages is one of amazement and whilst I find that there is little to be gained by personalising situations, I am rather dismayed that the Chief Inspector of Schools in England has launched a tirade against what he sees as “bad parents”.
Sir Michael Wilshaw was himself a head teacher and has many years of teaching experience in schools and as an education administrator. In his article he reflects on his time as a head teacher when :-
“If parents didn’t come into school, didn’t come to parents’ evening, didn’t read with their children, didn’t ensure they did their homework, I would tell them they were bad parents”.
In his new role, as Chief Inspector of Schools, a position that carries a lot of influence, he states:-
“I think head teachers should have the power to fine them. It’s sending the message that you are responsible for your children no matter how poor you are.”
Whilst I agree that we should encourage parents to be as supportive of their children and the schools they attend as possible, I am not convinced that either the language he uses or his understanding of family situations are presented in a helpful manner. In particular I have concerns for some of the expressions used in this report.
Firstly, I am not sure how telling parents that they are “bad” remediates the situation. Simply applying a negative label does not enable a situation to improve. I recall when I was a head teacher I had several conversations with parents who had themselves had negative experiences of schooling as children. Often for these parents attending school, having to talk to teachers who they often saw as living totally different lives from their own, was a daunting experience. I
remember one mother telling me that she was physically sick before coming to a parents evening as she knew her son had learning difficulties and felt that she would be blamed.
I also recall going to visit parents who were unable to attend parents evenings because of family or work commitments. Arranging child care, or in one particular instance care for a sick wife presented challenges that it would have been easy to overlook. These were not “bad parents” but rather those in situations, not of their own choosing that may make them to appear inadequate in the eyes of Sir Michael Wilshaw.
Of equal concern is the notion that these apparently “bad parents” come from poor backgrounds and that they use this as an excuse for not supporting their children. The annals of child negligence and abuse record many instances where those from privileged backgrounds have been as guilty as any of poor parenting. Why single out those from poorer backgrounds as being more inclined to such “bad parenting.”
Finally, I am intrigued by the idea that head teachers should be placed in the role of policeman, judge and jury in imposing sentences and fines upon parents. This does not sound like the role of a head teacher in a caring school, and certainly not one that many head teachers known to myself would want to adopt. In my experience, and that of many of my colleagues, making the effort to engage with parents through positive actions and by recognising that they often have difficulties to confront in their lives which they see as overwhelming is more likely to reap benefits for both children and families.
Yes, there are inadequate parents, ineffective teachers and also poor inspectors. But surely working together to support each other in a process of improvement is better than shaking a stick and making furious noises – though of course this does not gain you the publicity that you may crave.