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It's about children, not vote-gathering

I'm confused. A few months ago Charles Clarke was telling us of the delights of "wrap-around educare", the new school concept which would allow parents to be productive cogs in the British economy, knowing their children will be safe and secure, if institutionalised, from breakfast until supper.

Now the new Education Secretary Ruth Kelly is demanding that parents stop shirking their responsibilities and become more involved in the school lives of their children, take more time to support and encourage their learning.

The recommended time spent on junior homework is between 20 and 30 minutes a night, so with three children I reckon that I, being a productive member of society, should have just enough time to further enhance my children's learning before bedtime. We could possibly squeeze in half an hour to eat.

They cannot have it both ways. Ms Kelly spoke of being the "parents'

champion" at the recent North of England conference, but which parents? Not those who would like to go to work, secure in the knowledge their children will get the best education available, without having to spend precious family moments being an untrained teacher.

Not those who were so traumatised by their own schooling that just to walk through the gates takes hours, if not days, of preparation. Not even those who are able and willing to add to their children's intellectual growth with bedtime stories and proper conversations, but are happy to trust the professionals with the minutiae of the timetable.

And surely it is not those parents who do not see the point in educating their children, who complain when heads try to introduce a healthy meals programme, who aggressively undermine every attempt at classroom discipline, and who keep older children at home to mind their younger siblings?

So who are these parents Ms Kelly is so keen to engage in partnership? Could it possibly be those who might still be deciding which way to vote some time soon? Those middle-class parents who want what is absolutely the best for their child, regardless of the impact on anyone else's?

Those parents who have already skewed the system by buying up, at a premium, those houses around the "best" schools, "helping" with coursework and hiring private tutors? Or those who clog our streets shipping children miles away from their nearest school?

We do not need an education system designed around the needs and ambitions of parents, but around the needs and ambitions of children - all children.

Particularly those who have no one to champion them. Those without parents who care. Those whose parents do not understand how to work the system, who would never confront a head, or would happily concuss a head.

The evidence is irrefutable: a parent engaged in their offspring's learning can significantly increase that child's life-chances. We cannot return to the days when schools were a closed world, when reports were the only contact between teacher and parent and even they were opaque and uninformative.

But most heads supported by governors (more often than not parents) now have extensive programmes in place to encourage adults into school. They lay on curriculum evenings to explain how subjects are taught, offer family learning sessions, run rotas of primary parents who can lend a hand.

And if these, and the many other initiatives, are not in place, the Office for Standards in Education will quickly be asking why. So what can this new call to allow "parents to shape the education agenda" mean? To pander to the voting adults can only further damage an already shaky system.

I cannot be the only parent to feels a mite apprehensive when an education secretary thinks one of her biggest assets is that she is a mother herself.

I know hundreds of mothers but I'm not sure how many of them I would trust to run an education system.

Our country needs a system built on the knowledge of experienced professionals, designed to meet the interests of all. Most parents would probably forgo their chance to have a champion at the Department of Education and Skills for the security of knowing that, wherever they lived, whatever their background, their children are receiving the best education possible in the most convenient school, with or without their involvement.

Those parents, and our children, deserve better than a system shaped by self-interest and a Government keen to be re-elected.

Sure Start, Friday magazine 11 Alison Shepherd is chair of governors at a north-east London primary school

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