Power parents rule, OK?

Pushy parents are renowned in the entertainment world, where mothers and fathers, keen to see their children’s names in bright lights, do whatever is necessary to achieve success. Now, with the government’s plans for education reform, is there a danger that similarly pushy parents could start strutting their stuff in our classrooms?

The premise of the schools white paper, Higher Standards, Better Schools For All, is based on the idea of giving parents more control over how their children are educated.(1) Or as Tony Blair says in his foreword to the white paper to “put parents in the driving seat for change”.

All good in theory – parental interest in their children’s education has a positive effect on learning – but do all parents want to be in this driving seat? Might certain parents grab the steering wheel and zoom off, leaving less proactive mothers and fathers at the kerbside?

Jan Fry, director of external relations at the charity Parentline Plus, believes that the government’s plans for schools will encourage elitism, and result in the better educated, more confident parents driving the agenda.

“The ones who know how to make the system work for them will seize this opportunity but there are lots of other parents who do not know the agenda exists or who do not want to be involved. A lot of parents, such as the more vulnerable groups, particularly lone parents, want to entrust their child to school and let them get on with it. They don’t have the time or confidence to know what is going on.”

Under the proposals in the white paper, parents will be given a right to complain to the schools regulator Ofsted if they have concerns about a school. They will also be able to demand and set up new schools (see panel). Bold initiatives, but for those less expert in education policy, a tall order.

Fry says: “Most parents we support would be horrified to know that they could demand an inspection regime or new school. Many we talk to are wary of school, maybe because they’ve had a negative experience themselves or because they are unemployed or have low literacy or confidence.”

Parents also tend to stay away from their child’s school if they feel they will be blamed for their child’s wrongdoing. Those who fall into this group will hardly be encouraged to overcome this fear by the white paper.

The government wants to foster stronger parental involvement in schools, but is proposing a hard line on families whose  children behave poorly. For example, it is proposed that parents of excluded children should have to supervise their children at home for the first five days of the exclusion and be fined if they fail to do so.

Another central tenet of the white paper is based around giving more choice to parents over where they send their child to school. The rationale is that by giving parents the ability to “vote with their feet”, underperforming schools will come under pressure to improve. Fine for parents who know about league tables and inspection reports and who have the skills to analyse the results; less so for parents who may not know where to access the information or who may struggle to understand it, particularly if English is not their first language.

To combat this, the government proposes introducing “dedicated choice advisers to help the least well-off parents to exercise their choices”. There is also a plan to increase free school transport for disadvantaged pupils (those who are eligible for free school meals or whose parents receive the maximum level of working tax credit).

But, as a spokesperson for the National Union of Teachers points out, choice is always going to be restricted. “Only if every school was capable of taking every child in the area would there be choice, and that would be economic lunacy.”

And, while increased parental choice may seem positive on the surface, there is a risk to communities and society as a whole. In its written response to the white paper the NUT refers to a report by the Swedish National Agency for Education that found that parental choice over schools “reinforced segregation, particularly in the matter of ethnic composition”. It also found that because parental school choice requires willpower, knowledge and time, “ever larger groups of parents and pupils end up being left outside”.(2)

The danger is that some parents would avoid schools with high numbers of particular children such as those from ethnic minorities. The NUT spokesperson says: “They may do so for reasons that are nothing to do with the quality of education provided but because of a lack of knowledge or straightforward prejudice. There’s an unfounded fear that having schools with mixed communities can lead to a reduction in standards. But it’s a myth. Where there are large numbers of refugee children the extra support to the school can also benefit the other children.”

Avoiding certain schools would be detrimental to social integration, and, in extreme cases, insufficient pupil numbers could result in school closures.

Before it proceeds with its plans, the government should look at the lessons from Sure Start, where parents have been involved in running the programme from the outset. A recent evaluation found that parents with “greater human capital” (in this case the more educated) were better able to take advantage of the Sure Start services and that children from the more disadvantaged families were adversely affected by living in a Sure Start area.(3)

An unintentional side effect, but nonetheless a warning for school reform. If parents who shout loudest get their children into better schools then there is a risk that those who don’t know how to raise their voices will be stuck with second best.

(1) Department for Education and Skills, Higher Standards, Better Schools For All, 2005
(2) National Union of Teachers, A Good Local School for Every Child, 2005
(3) Department for Education and Skills, Early Impacts of Sure Start Local Programmes on Children and Families, 2005

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