Heads told: stop blaming parents for failings

NAHT general secretary urges leaders to leave the `ivory tower'

Stephen Exley

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Headteachers need to stop "blaming parents for everything" and should instead "treat them as partners - not merely consumers - in education", the leader of the biggest heads' union has warned.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, told the union's annual conference that, although the government had "struck a chord" with parents through its "nostalgic vision of a traditional education", it was time for heads "to seize the agenda from the politicians and set it ourselves, in partnership with parents and families".

Rather than tackling ministers head on, Mr Hobby told delegates in Harrogate that school leaders needed to leave their "ivory tower" and win over parents in order to wrest back control of the education system from a government that "fears the voter more than it fears the strike".

"If we used our trust and credibility, and started listening to parents about what they want and talking to them about what we can do, I think we could make a formidable team.

"It will mean leaving the ivory tower; it will mean forgoing the easy excuses - we can't blame the parents for everything; it will mean dropping the jargon and any form of defensiveness altogether. But we know that it takes both families and schools, working together, to educate children properly," he said.

Admitting that a "tiny minority (of parents) go out of their way to make life difficult" for schools, Hr Hobby said that families often find the education system "opaque and bureaucratic".

"Their own experience of school, in that mythical golden age of education, may not have been good. Building a new level of engagement will require us to step out of our professional perspective and see the education system from an entirely different angle," he added.

The union's two major policy announcements of the weekend, as reported in last week's TES, were warmly received by members. The first was the announcement of a school improvement programme in which, with the backing of the Department for Education, selected schools will be given three years' protection from forced academy conversion, during which time the NAHT will help its leaders to attain a good inspection rating from Ofsted. The second was the launch of School View, a website where heads can rate the performance of inspectors.

The emphasis on constructive criticism and engagement must have been music to the ears of Michael Gove, with the education secretary still smarting from a brusque reception from delegates at the annual conference of the other heads' union, the Association of School and College Leaders, in Birmingham in March.

The minister was effusive in his praise of the "brilliant" Mr Hobby, to his apparent embarrassment; the following day, the general secretary pleaded with his members not to hold it against him.

But civility was the order of the weekend in the North Yorkshire spa town. A motion of no confidence in the much-derided chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw was later toned down, after several delegates warned against "bullying" him, in the same manner they felt he has bullied them since taking up the job. Members instead agreed to say that they were "saddened and angered".

A time to be blunt

General secretary Russell Hobby may have described unions' "industrial muscle" as a "blunt instrument", but he made explicit his belief that it "is sometimes . necessary" by threatening to boycott two separate primary school tests.

Warning that the high pass rate for the key stage 1 phonics test could be "a stick to beat schools with", he said: "If it is used to attack rather than assess, that will be the end of the screening check, as far as the NAHT is concerned. And we will happily work with our colleagues in other unions such as the NUT to frustrate its application."

Members also hit out at the key stage 2 test of technical English, which assesses pupils' spelling, punctuation and grammar and is due to start in 2013. They called on the NAHT executive to "ensure this flawed test does not take place".

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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