Parent v children v teachers

Far from breaking any 'cycle of disrespect' among school children, the UK education secretary is encouraging a cycle of blame between parents and teachers.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Is Estelle Morris, the UK education secretary, a former teacher or a therapist-in-training?

For somebody who uses every opportunity to boast of her days in the classroom, Morris’ approach to education is anybody’s guess. Every month, she seems to float a new idea – more exams, fewer exams, GCSEs in tourism, fewer modern languages – adding up to a bewildering array of disjointed ideas conspicuous by their lack of educational vision.

Yet when it comes to her approach to teachers, she seems headed for every psychobabblic qualification going. Her formula? If in doubt, flatter them – at whatever the cost to children’s schooling.

Morris’ latest teachers-on-the-couch session took place yesterday, at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Association’s annual conference in Cardiff. She proposed that parents whose children misbehave in school should be ordered to attend ‘parenting classes’ or face a fine of £1000. ‘There are too many instances of parents challenging a teacher’s right to discipline their children according to the rules of the school’, she said. ‘A message that has gone to that child is that teachers should not be respected and adults should not be respected, and that’s not good enough.’ (1) The discussion has been about breaking a ‘cycle of disrespect’, starting in school and lasting throughout children’s lives.

‘Cycle of disrespect.’ What a great phrase – designed to export the discussion wholesale out of the sphere of education and into the arena of therapy, and a perfect encapsulation of Morris’ approach. It terms of meaning, of course, the term is vacuous. ‘I respect you’, Morris is saying to teachers, ‘and because I respect you, I’m going to make the kids respect you, by making the parents respect you’. But what does ‘respect’ mean, in this ridiculously cyclical sense? How are threats of a court order supposed to engineer respect for teachers among naughty kids and rebellious parents?

They’re not. All this legal jackbooting is gesture politics at its most banal. In emphasising ‘respect’, Morris avoids getting too deeply into the trickier question of discipline. If Morris means anything by breaking the ‘cycle of disrespect’, it is only that she wants to force parents and children to sit down, shut up and keep their views to themselves. Which, given the broader context of New Labour’s education policy, seems pretty damn unlikely.

The breathtaking disdain with which Morris speaks of parents strikes a peculiar note, given that, elsewhere in education-land, parents are cajoled to play an ever-more intrusive role in their child’s schooling. They are supposed to help with their homework, coach them through their various key stages, examine their kids for early signs of gift and talent, and generally be more precious about their child’s state education than any previous generation of parents.

In this context, is it really that surprising that parents get stroppier with teachers than previously they might have done, and that passions explode on both sides? It was telling that, on the same day that Estelle Morris launched her attack on parents, research was reported claiming that parents blame teachers for children’s bad behaviour in school (2). Of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they – but it’s no less convincing than teachers pinning all the blame for children’s in-school behaviour upon these children’s home lives, and whingeing about how teachers’ human rights are abused on a daily basis (3).

This phoney war between teachers and parents is as destructive as it is pointless. When it comes to schooling, both sides share one common goal – the education of their children. Yet there is an assumption that neither side can be trusted to their jobs – and that somehow, the state can do better. ‘The state does not make a good parent and it is not for the secretary of state to interfere with how parents bring up children, but for too long the effect of parents’ behaviour on their children has been a taboo subject’, said Morris (4). A taboo subject? The ‘problem’ of bad parenting is just about all the New Labour government talks about – when it’s not telling teachers how to do their job, too.

That the education secretary thinks that the common goal shared by parents and teachers is less of a priority than opportunistic point-scoring at a teachers’ conference is a sad indictment of Estelle Morris, and the education policy she stands for. She should be locked up.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Morris acts against parents of unruly pupils, Guardian, 28 March 2002

(2) Parents say teachers cause misbehaviour, BBC News, 27 March 2002

(3) Clampdown on unruly pupils, BBC News, 27 March 2002

(4) Parents to face action on school bad behaviour, Daily Telegraph, 28 March 2002

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Topics Politics


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