Pointing the finger at parents

Education secretary Ruth Kelly’s speech about zero tolerance of
disruptive behaviour in school once again places most of the blame
on parents. Of course, everyone wants children to be able to learn
in school, and for schools to have clear and effective behaviour
policies.  But challenging and disruptive behaviour is a sign by
children and young people of their deep unhappiness and difficulty,
and so needs careful handling.  There are no quick fixes. 

Parentline Plus hears from thousands of parents every month,
almost half of them ringing about concerns over their teenagers’
behaviour.  It is quite clear from all our work with parents that
they are desperate for help and support and struggling with long
term and entrenched difficulties.  It is also clear that when
children and young people are behaving badly in school, their
behaviour is even more challenging at home – parents tell us about
very high levels of conflict, violence, drug and alcohol misuse and
threats of running away.  Analysis of calls to our helpline
concerning truancy showed that parents were desperate for help and
were quite unable to find any.

Many families known to the education system, whose child has a
record of poor behaviour or truanting, are living in very difficult
circumstances with multiple problems. After years of failing to
find appropriate support, parents are often wary of any statutory
programmes.  It is very sad that all that is now on offer is
Parenting Orders and Contracts and the threat of imprisonment and
fines.  Parentline Plus works with many parents on Parenting Orders
from Youth Offending Teams – all of them have been asking for help
for years, but have never been eligible – their children’s problems
not deemed severe enough.  ‘Every Child Matters’ envisages a much
greater emphasis on early intervention – we very much hope this
will become a reality, but until it is, the focus should be on how
parents can be supported instead of blamed.  Threats from the
government can actually exacerbate conflict in the family, and so
contributes further to the families’ difficulties and to their
alienation from agencies that are seen to be official. This does
not help children, or schools. 

Current policy also makes it difficult for schools to respond
effectively.  Schools are faced with contradictory demands. The
pressures of league tables can over-shadow their ability, with
limited resources, to deal effectively with pupils and their
parents who are disruptive in class.  ‘Every Child Matters’
emphasises the importance of supporting parents to raise their
children to achieve good outcomes.  And of course achieving at
school is crucial to these.  Support is however about valuing and
acknowledging the work that parents do, and is not about threats
and blame.  Of course clear boundaries need to be set – and
disruptive behaviour is not acceptable – but the child who is
disruptive needs understanding, and their parents need support to
help to support that child. 

The emphasis on placing the responsibility firmly with parents
needs to be contextualised – teenagers are subject to peer
pressure, they have minds of their own. Indeed Government has
acknowledged this by setting up a Children and Young People’s Board
to support the implementation of ‘Every Child Matters’.  If young
people can have a voice in national policy why can’t they have a
voice in schools’ policies?  And why are their parents held totally
responsible for their actions when we know that young people have
their own views?  This unrealistic and contradictory view of the
role of parents, which unfairly emphasises their failings, can only
service to further isolate parents who are struggling and trying
their best. 

Assumptions are made about ‘bad parenting’ to suggest that
parents do not care, but if the critics took a look at the whole
picture they would see that the vast majority of parents are doing
the best they can; often in the face of enormous challenges and
significant social changes. If we are serious about improving
outcomes for children and young people, we need to invest much more
in supporting their parents and the wider extended family who are
so important in caring for children.

Dorit Braun is chief executive of Parentline



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