Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Head Teachers Sanctioning Parents

The Chief Inspector of Schools and Michael Gove, the Education Secretary seemed to have decided that you can “sanction quality in”:

Head teachers in England should be given powers to fine parents who fail to support their children’s education, the chief inspector of schools says.

Sir Michael Wilshaw says parents who allow homework to be left undone, who miss parents’ evenings or fail to read with their children should be punished.

Currently parents receive a £60 penalty notice if their child plays truant.

But Education Secretary Michael Gove wants tougher penalties for those whose children are not “ready to learn”.
BBC News Website 17 June 2014 : Fine ‘bad parents’, says Ofsted boss

Quality Inspectors in manufacturing learnt decades ago that you cannot “inspect quality in” but have to find and tackle the root causes of problems. Perhaps if Mr Gove had a wider education he would have learnt this historical lesson and be applying it.

I would agree that “the home situation” is a major factor in determining a child’s success in education and that consequently under-achievement in one generation is very easily passed on to the next generation.

Eleven plus failure, me. I went to the Secondary mod and I’ve done OK. What was good enough for me is good enough for my kids, I don’t want them getting any fancy ideas.
Comment made to me by a parent in the late 1970s

The two Michaels need to look deeper than the idea that you can “punish good behaviour into parents”. If they could find it in their capabilities to walk in the shoes of parents who have bad memories of their own education and who probably achieved little they might realise:

  • Those parents did not do their own homework when at school, quite possibly because conditions at home did not make it easy. They have bad memories of school and probably want the best for their children – which means allowing them a bit of freedom to enjoy themselves after getting home from being “cooped up in class all day”. The “value of homework” is probably not appreciated; it is something “swots do” and swots get teased or worse.
  • The last thing that parents want to do is to “come into school” to “see teacher” at parents’ evenings. They remember many of their teachers as authority figures at a time they did not particularly enjoy. It is probably a “middle class” attitude that says you go into parents evenings to discuss your children’s progress and you probably do so having grown out of your childhood attitude to teachers and can now see them as fellow adults. Giving head teachers the power to fine you £60 – a significant part of some families’ weekly budget will not improve this attitude.
  • Many parents who fail to read with their children are either busy/tired and/or have no “love of reading” and do not see the benefit of reading to their reluctant children. Bookshelves (for storing books) are probably quite common in Michael Wilshaw’s or Michael Gove’s homes. The latter, if he has done any significant canvassing, will know that in some homes there are practically no books and any bookshelves are used for displaying a few ornaments and for storing things like keys or the remote controls.

It is quite likely that many of these (loving) parents view “forcing education” on their kids as a form of abuse – and they know that abuse can “get social services in”. Presenting them with a situation where they feel that they face sanction whatever they do is not the way forward.

Sir Michael said poverty was all too often used as an excuse for failure by white working-class families.

“It’s not about income or poverty. Where families believe in education they do well. If they love their children they should support them in schools.”
BBC News Website 17 June 2014 : Fine ‘bad parents’, says Ofsted boss

By the time children are failing to do their homework, the die is at least partly cast. You either have a child who sees no benefit or you have a home situation which is unsupportive such as parents who do not believe in education. Fines won’t help to turn such (loving) parents into believers.

My French teacher used to give us vocabulary to learn for homework and then test us with a 20 question test. This would then be publicly marked out of 10 – with one mark being knocked off for every mistake. I quickly learnt that since I only got about half right, those 10 mistakes would give me 0/10, so there was little point in doing homework when it was French vocabulary – I might as well enjoy myself.

Fortunately my parents were supportive and asked me why I was always getting “0” for my French – and I felt I could tell them. They were then not frightened of going into to school and “discussing” the issue with the teacher. I don’t think my teachers looked forward to parents’ evenings.
Comment made to me by someone recalling their education

Just as manufacturing learnt in the 1980s, if you have a problem you do two things:

  • An immediate band-aid type solution to stop the immediate problem
  • An examination of the process to find “the root cause” of the problem, which once eliminated can remove the problem once and for all

Fining parents is neither a band-aid nor a root cause removal. It is an authoritarian approach which may only reinforce the attitudes that lead to the problem in the first place. But it will probably sound good when the Education Secretary can tell a Conservative Conference “we have taken decisive action and are now fining bad parents; in the last term we fined 55,000 bad parents”.

Teachers should teach; magistrates should sanction. And society should look for politicians who will try to ensure that every child gets a good and sure start to their education – and that may mean supporting parents.

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