Parent Power – The Prime Hope For a Grass Roots Revival of English Education

This is my third investigative report into the parlous state of education in England’s state schools. The first argued for a massive reduction in the scale of government intervention; the second for a transfer of power to give teachers far more control of the education process. Now, in this final article, I want to highlight the vital role that can, and should, be played by parents, grandparents and local communities in helping youngsters develop their individual talents and skills, so they are not merely trained to earn a living, but more significantly to enjoy a fulfilling life and make a substantial contribution to the society they will eventually inherit..

Much is said today of the need to empower children and give them more control of the way their schools are run. This is an invaluable exercise in democracy as children mature, but must never be introduced in a way which weakens teacher autonomy and classroom discipline. One of the government’s recent items of backroom window dressing is ‘Student Voice’, a programme which invites children to rate their teachers’ performance. This, they now realize, gives youngsters the opportunity to downgrade teachers whom they judge to be too strict. Under this new initiative they’re also offered the chance of interviewing prospective new teachers, one applicant being humiliated by a request to sing his favourite song. Ill-conceived policies like these have led to a marked decline in discipline in schools. Practically every week there is a violent attack on a teacher in England. One fourteen-year-old boy sexually assaulted a classroom assistant. The head wanted him expelled, but the governors overturned his decision. A twelve year old boy was banned from an Essex school for carrying a knife, but was allowed back by an appeals panel. With this lax discipline, children will offend with impunity, and think that they can do the same when they leave school which is hardly what we want.

Children are being taught their rights, but not their responsibilities. Coordination Group Publications, one of the UK’s largest educational publishers, has sold thousands of copies of ‘Your Legal Rights’, a book which assures teenagers: ‘You have the right to be protected from emotional or physical abuse’. One of the examples it gives of physical abuse, is being made to take part in a cross country run. This was once thought to be an excellent way of getting fit, but clearly our aim now is not to encourage youngsters to maintain a high level of physical fitness, but to be able to take their place in a litigation culture. Children should we empowered, but at the same time they must be encouraged to recognise authority, and eventually assume positions of authority, for as Voltaire stressed, “firm discipline serves not only to punish the culprit, but also to ‘encourage the others’ to remain virtuous.”

Assuming that power can be wrenched from the government, and a large measure transferred to teachers and senior pupils, some must be retained and reassigned to parents and local communities. Parents are legally responsible for their children, and since they pay the bulk of the taxes which fund the state education system, they should have a powerful voice in the way that money is spent. In a democracy there should be no taxation without direct representation, as the Bostonians citizens argued when they thumbed their noses at the British government and held their highly successful Tea Party protest. There’s little doubt that if a referendum were held today, parents would vote against the rigid, exam based 3Rs national syllabus, in favour of a more liberal, diverse and flexible curriculum which took account not only of children’s needs, but also of teachers’ individual talents and enthusiasms. Classes must be adaptable, so they can respond to a child’s natural curiosity, whether it’s an interest is grasshoppers or a zeal for collecting foreign coins. So much schooling today is dull, and bears little relationship to the real world. A focus on passing tests does little to foster creativity, enthusiasm and a passion for lifetime study. At five the majority of children can’t wait to get to school; at sixteen most can’t wait to leave. Education should return to its etymological roots. It should be a process of drawing out (from the Latin educare), rather than a mindless regime of indoctrination. In the long run the only meaningful education is self-education, for what children learn at school today will be out of date in a few years time.

The educational aspirations of politicians fail, not because they’re too high, but because they’re set so abysmally low. A healthy education system needs diversity rather than mind numbing conformity. Families should be given the choice of sending their children to technical colleges, comprehensives, faith schools, secondary modern, grammar schools or public schools. Or, if they have the time and ability, why should they be hindered from joining the estimated twenty to fifty thousand parents in England who opt to teach their offspring at home? Again, why shouldn’t parents in England be given the chance to open ‘free schools’? This has been done with great success in Sweden where since 1955 local communities have the freedom to buy an appropriate building and turn it into an independent school. Parents are given a voucher to pay for their child’s education and can cash it in at any school they fancy, so long as it doesn’t charge any kind of ‘top up’ fees. Since this legislation was introduced well over a thousand free schools have opened and now educate more than one in ten of all Swedish pupils.

Success in life is not closely related to IQ scores, but is more intimately linked with personality factors, like determination, sociability, inventiveness, courage and motivation. Research shows that gifted children tend to be artistic, musical, good at sports, able to communicate easily with adults, have a lively and original imagination coupled with an ability to focus on their own interests rather than simply what is being taught in the school curriculum. Parents have been led to believe that education is about gaining diplomas and degrees, which is why almost half of the children at London state schools are now receiving private tuition to help them through their SATs and GCSEs. Children’s minds should not be crammed with facts. They should be given time to dream, which is the open sesame to creativity. Like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland they should be encouraged to think that education includes believing half-a-dozen impossible things every morning before breakfast. At a good school, children should be trained to work together for the common good rather than in monastic isolation. This is not happening today in most UK schools according to a recent survey of eight countries where a sample of children was asked to reply to the statement: ‘Most of the students in my class are kind and helpful.’ In Switzerland over eighty per cent of children replied that this was true; in Britain only 43 per cent of children gave the same affirmative response, the lowest of all the countries polled. This is a sad commentary on our schools, and an even sadder reflection of the state of our divided society.

Many independent schools have a social service programme, an extra-curricular activity which encourages senior boys to go out into the community: to visit the elderly in their homes, do their shopping, help at day centres, work in charity shops, take food and clothing to homeless people and work at centres for the mentally handicapped. By doing so they gain as much as the people they serve. Why can’t a similar system be introduced in state schools? Gardening is another valuable extra-curricular activity, which can be carried out under the supervision of parents and grandparents whenever there’s an accessible plot of allotment land. Less than two years ago the Royal Horticultural Society launched a Campaign for Schools Gardening, which well over six thousand schools have now joined. Its objective is to give every youngster the opportunity to get a taste for gardening, and the opportunity to grow and learn about plants. Children should also be expected to perform chores, a duty which prepares them for the responsibilities of adult life. This is the belief of the charity help line www.parentlineplus.org.uk which claims that as well as being a confidence builder, ‘Chores can also teach children how to plan their own time, taking into consideration others’ needs’. This used to be taken for granted in most households, but is now largely forgotten, unless children are bribed to run an errand or clean the family car. A study carried out by Markella Rutherford, an assistant professor of sociology at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, revealed that American parenting magazines regularly advised families to give children routine tasks, like decorating, shopping, house cleaning, gardening and nursing sick relatives. This advice disappeared from the magazines in the 1980s. Since then, children’s only responsibility is to do their homework. This is regrettable, since the more trust we place in children, the more they will grow to justify that trust. Learning doesn’t stop when we complete our formal education, for as Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher affirmed: ‘A man should never stop learning, even on his last day.’ To recognise and promote the individuality of the pupil, and prepare them for a lifetime of exploration and growth, we must recognize and promote the individuality of each individual school.

Communities ought to form pressure groups to lobby for change in the educational system. Parents should join their local PTAs, to play an active role in the running of their schools. All too often we don’t protest because we think we’re powerless to change the status quo, but as Lord Justice Brandeis rightly observed: ‘The irresistible in often simply that which is not resisted.’ Many people campaigned against the 1902 Education Act, which abolished the board school system, and 170 parents went to prison for refusing to pay their school taxes. Would we be brave enough to do the same today? Schools should work in close conjunction with parents and local communities, and be subject to far less control from impersonal quangos and remote government departments. We must press for change at grass roots level to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving world, for as Thomas Edison observed more than a century ago: ‘If you are doing anything the way you did twenty years ago, there is a better way.’