I have had a lot of contact with ‘kids nowadays’, certainly over the last 11 years as a parent, Sunday school leader, football coach, school governor and now as a teacher. Do you know what? Kids are great. I mean, not all of them all of the time. Often they are pains in the arse. However, contrary to a lot of popular opinion, children are certainly no worse than when I grew up 30 to 40 years ago. Indeed, they are often better. I grew up in a small monocultural town which meant that my friends and I were the sort of little racist, sexist and homophobic shits that existed before racism was bad. We were drawing swastikas on exercise books and telling jokes against Pakistanis, the full works. Ludicrous seeing as we had never even seen a non-white face apart from the rare one on TV but that is the way of the ignorant child. Today’s children , however, seem to be have achieved the sort of acceptance of those different from oneself very quickly, almost naturally. My son has a friend who has had a sex change and, after the minimum of explanation, has accepted this. Like I say, kids are pretty cool nowadays.
Why, then, are children acting so differently from previous generations? The main cause, in one word, is ‘parents nowadays’. Throughout my experience with children, I have encountered parents who have ludicrous ideas about what their children can and can’t do. Parents who feel that their children can’t go to the park at the end of their road. Parents who feel they have to drive their children half a mile to school. Parents who will take their children to ballet and flute classes before teaching them to swim, cross the road or ride a bike. Parents who feel that they have to let them have games or movies rated over their age. Parents who cosset their children by not letting them free to play away from home with their friends, roam free in parks or countryside and even just hang around town (now, it appears, some sort of sign of delinquency in itself). Apart from traffic, children are as safe nowadays or even safer than at any time in history and, as I say, it doesn’t appear that parents are teaching their children road safety more. Actually, I am wrong. Children appear to be more at risk from obesity nowadays than before. Part of this is due to being ferried to schools in a car and having active play and sports restricted to one hour a week at a adult-supervised club.
Ok, a rant about ‘parents nowadays’, what has that got to do with education? Well, mainly because the same parents who often make ill-informed decisions based on rumour, innuendo, prejudice and flawed evidence are gaining more and more power in education. I am not talking about Free Schools which are on a plane of lunacy all their own. I am talking about all education. This, along with many damaging moves, started with the Conservatives’ 1988 Education Reform Act, brought in by Kenneth Baker. It introduced open admissions (effectively meaning that children could go to schools outside the catchment area), schools budgets set by amount of pupils and the introduction of external testing which, in turn, led to league tables of schools. This was supposed to give the parents ‘choice’ when, in fact, it ended up with parents having too much or no choice depending greatly on your socio-economic status.
A prevailing attitude that has grown up around this – amongst politicians, the media and, indeed, parents – is that, academically, parents know what is best for their children over and above teachers (we will leave that politicians feel they know what is best for children educationally over and above teachers for another time). This is a bizarre idea. Although there have been some occasions tending towards this in the field of heath (see MMR), no-one is suggesting, medically, parents know what is best for their children over and above health professionals. Well, internet diagnoses and homeopathy notwithstanding. However, everyone is now in a position to decide on one of the most important experiences a child is going to have, regardless of how informed they are.
Since 1988, a culture has built up where, due to school budgets being set by pupils numbers on roll, an education market has established itself with parents as consumers and children becoming currency for schools to vie for. Of course, the ‘advertising’ that these schools used have invariably been the league tables. The idea that this has introduced choice for all parents is illusory. Parents who have the cultural capital, familiarity of professional and bureaucratic systems and higher achieving children (that schools with one eye on league tables will wish to attract) have a great amount of choice. Parents of lower-acheiving children who do not know how to play the system have less. In theory, schools cannot select children. however, admissions by religion, siblings or through a complicated appeal system mean a system skewed towards those who are savvy with application forms, professional jargon and legal rights. Even if less able children from lower socio-cultural background get into ‘better’ schools, they are more at risk of being suspended or excluded permanently due to, again, parents lack of familiarity with the system and schools’ reluctance to have children who are going to drag down the results.
Of course, all these arguments have been visited and revisited in schools, the media and in government for years so why am I addressing it? Throughout my contact with schools and parents, I have noticed a lack of respect for teachers that just wasn’t present when I was in school 30-40 years ago. In those times, mostly pre-1979 and the election of Thatcher, parents regarded teachers views on children, their academic potential, ability and attainment almost without question. Now this, in itself, could be a bad thing open to exploitation were it not for one thing. Teachers, like nurses, social workers and other public servants tend to get into the profession to help others. It certainly isn’t for the money nor, contrary to popular belief, the holidays. Anyway, teachers were seen as being best placed to comment on children’s education. It seems logical when you put it like that, doesn’t it? In the same manner as doctors are best placed to comment on children’s health and dentists best placed to comment on their teeth. You know, with all the training and qualifying you have to do before you even get to the fact that many teachers have a fair bit of experience. Even parents who were not particularly interested in education themselves tended to want their children to do well in school and respected teachers’ role in this.
Nowadays, however, you have parents who seem to believe that you are working for them and their vision for their particular children rather than all the children in your care. Either that or those that see your role as someone who seeks only to victimise their children. The former quite simply want the school, teaching, curriculum, management and the rest of the children to fit in with their offspring otherwise they will take them off to another school. I expect we have all seen or heard examples of this but I once saw someone to take their child out of school to another only to return a month later as their daughter didn’t have any friends in the new school. Odd, that. The thing about these parents is that the issue is never with their child. It is always that the curriculum or teaching aren’t testing them enough or is too hard so they misbehave. However, if other children misbehave, it is because they are disruptive and are putting their little offspring off (By the way, “disruptive” nowadays is a code word for ‘black’, ‘working class’, ‘boy’ or any combination of these).
Then you get the parents of children who are genuinely disruptive , aggressive and occasionally violent. You meet up with the parents and they refuse to believe that their child can be acting as such, even in the face of professionals recounting many examples of this that have been noted and recorded. Often, these are the parents that will get angry, aggressive and even violent with teachers. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree etc. I remember one case of a school agreeing to keep a child there if he managed to keep violence to other kids down to one incident a week. Yes, you read that right. As it happens, in my capacity as a governor, I ended up being physically confronted by the parents of this boy in the reception. The head was too scared to meet them and had left instructions to call the police if the parents kicked off. The acorn doesn’t etc, etc.
Now, don’t get me wrong, not all parents. In fact, I would even go as far as saying that most parents aren’t like this. The schools that are genuinely effective (forget Ofsted ‘outstanding’) are the ones where parents are fully involved with their child’s education and help out at school – encouraging children by reading to them, modelling respect for education, teachers and school, volunteering to hear children read and getting involved in PTA organisations. Indeed, one of the Conservatives’ better implementations of parent power was, in 1986, introducing parent governors. While many of these may embark upon a governorship thinking that they will mould the school to their own ideals, they either change their mind or leave when they realise that much of the work of a governor is number crunching of budgets and reading of endless directives from local and national government. Those that stay do vital work in supporting the school, the staff and the children.
However, there are enough of the ‘sharp-elbowed’ parents (a term which David Cameron described himself as recently) to reduce a school’s roll if their (and their friends’ – playground gossip can be a most destructive weapon) ideas of how a school should be run aren’t implemented. There is a minority of the aggressive parents with similar children that can make school staff’s worklives hell. All this dealing with parents is, of course, on top of educating, managing, caring for and being responsible for their children while keeping on top of the latest wheeze from the government.
Why has it got to this place? Why has respect for education and, specifically in this case, teachers been so diminished? Well, the 30-40 years that have passed since my education and today are a very crucial time period for this change. Firstly, there was end of the post-war consensus which had previously kept education from being the political football it is today. Following this was the introduction of the influence of industry as well as politicians in curriculum and pedagogy setting. A particular pity about this was that it was the Labour Party of Callaghan that started this process of emasculating teachers from their own profession. Even though the Conservatives waited until 1988 to bring in their reforms, the ground had been laid for their interference by the Labour Party who wished to make teachers scapegoats for their own economic woes.
The subsequent decades have seen everyone from parents, politicians, the media to business figures feel that they are well-positioned to comment, criticise and control education despite, often, their only qualification being that they once went to school. Teachers, on the other hand, have become increasingly de-professionalised and relegated to deliverers of a curriculum that they and educationalists have had very little input to and are judged by those with little knowledge of the field. It is inevitable that teachers have lost the respect of much of society that they used to have. It is very much a drip-down effect – government, the media and business blaming teachers which influences parents and this often leads to a lack of respect from children.
As I say, many parents are supportive of teachers, schools and education, get positively involved in the schools and even the ones who are looking for schools that are fine-tuned for their children are, I am sure, mostly doing it with their children’s perceived best interest at heart. However, this is why unqualified untrained people – whether they be politicians, industry, the media or parents – should not have the power and influence they currently do. However well-meaning, parents do not know how best to educate their children unless they have had had formal training and formal qualifications (however much Gove wishes to devalue these). Well-meaning parents with no relevant practice and instruction are the reason that we end up with children being treated with homeopathy and not receiving MMR injections.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-parents. Far from it, I am still very much an active parent. Indeed, I also felt that, as a parent, I could contribute to schools and education. Which is why I took 4 years in studying education and then qualifying to be a teacher. It kind of made sense to do it that way.