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Passing the book

Who's to blame for kids' bad behaviour in schools?

Kate Abley

Topics Politics

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Tony Blair’s proposals for re-educating the parents of unruly kids was only the latest in a stream of government initiatives on children’s behaviour. Earlier this year, education secretary Ruth Kelly said that parents who failed to ensure that their kids behaved at school would be forced to attend classes in how to bring up their children.

These measures will do little to improve children’s behaviour. My experience as a primary school teacher in inner London for 13 years was that, while most children behave well at home and at school, there are significant numbers who are angels at school and tyrants at home, and vice versa. Some parents have asked me if I can do anything to make their child behave as well at home as they do in class – and other parents were astonished to discover that their child had misbehaved at school.

While parental discipline can have some effect on children’s behaviour when they are at school, children respond to different adults in different ways. Teachers have a responsibility to establish good behaviour in their pupils, regardless of their behaviour in other situations. At present, a growing number of teachers and schools have trouble in establishing good discipline.

It is true that parents can undermine teacher discipline by complaining about the treatment of their children. But this is a result of the blurring of the roles of teachers and parents. It is now established practice for parents to take a role in teaching their children. The reading book bag, home work from the age of four and GCSE coursework all send the message that parents are partners in their child’s education.

Meanwhile, teachers have had their expertise as teachers undermined by successive government education campaigns. Now, thanks to the ‘Every Child Matters’ campaign, teachers must cater for the emotional and psychological wellbeing of pupils, which was previously seen as parents’ job.

The seesaw of blame between teachers and parents is unhelpful. Both teachers and parents are uncertain about how to discipline children. This is because we live in a time of great confusion about how to bring up and socialise children – a fact that is reflected in the conflicting advice on parenting styles.

A certain consensus does appear to be forming in the case of older children, but this is entirely negative. It is based not on what children should be, but on a narrow set of things that they should not be – ie, ‘anti-social’.

Enforced parental education classes will only make matters worse. If a child knows that those with power think that their parent is no good, the child’s trust in their parent’s judgement will be undermined. Whether or not the child’s behaviour improves in the short term, the relationship between parent and child will be weakened. The imposition of values on a family could undermine what little security it has been able to foster. The chance that the child may then go off the rails for good will be increased.

The imposition of parenting classes can create a child-like dependency of parents upon official advice. I have met a few parenting-books-and-classes junkies who have lost faith in their own judgement, and go from one theory to the next in an anxious quest for the perfect parenting style.

It seems that the government will try anything to promote the idea of handling ‘anti-social behaviour’. When parenting classes don’t work, and they have wrecked a good number of families, will the government move on to the next big thing?

Kate Abley taught primary school children for 13 years and is author of Swings and Roundabouts: The Danger of Safety in Outdoor Play Environments, published by Sheffield Hallam University Press.

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Topics Politics

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