'Teachers shouldn't have to do the parents' job, too'

There's an expectation in our country that teachers will step in where parents have failed in their responsibilities, warns one educationalist

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A light drizzle of news stories about parenting recently turned into a raining-cats-and-dogs affair when I read about a school (in which I had previously taught) that had succeeded in changing some pupils' attitudes and achievements by farming them out to other families.

I’m simply in awe of the headteacher who didn’t just exhibit the wisdom to try this out but possessed the considerable diplomacy and communication skills needed to make it happen. (That is a million-dollar effort if I ever I saw one, Mr Varkey.)

There have been lots of experiments that remove kids from one school type and put them in another – largely because they make good television. But none dare go as far as to scrutinise the quality of parenting and assert that schools are not, and never should be, substitute parents.

Schools can offer children all kinds of rich experiences outside of formal classrooms. Sport, drama, music; in fact, pretty much anything fun or interesting in itself for a child to experience, can carry that extracurricular label. But it should be parents who make the choices. Schools may choose to provide the opportunity, but it's up to the parents to decide whether to take it or not. Work internationally and you will very quickly appreciate that schools abroad tend to be just that, schools.

And before you rush for the comments box to voice your outrage and detail the genuinely distressing stories, don’t fool yourself that this is either a poverty or a class issue.

Schools can't cure all society's ills

We have created a national expectation that schools should fulfil literally dozens of roles that parents, irrespective of social class, have gleefully and irresponsibly abdicated. Sex and diet, drugs, social media use, bullying, mental health, careers guidance…whether or not your child should carry a knife into school, for God’s sake, have all become the responsibility of schools, which actually means teachers. Just think about that for one moment. Teachers.

Since when did we communally decide that professionals trained and employed to pass on knowledge and skills to children in classrooms should also offer the kinds of advice and guidance which the fundamental qualities of family life – morality, religion, culture, and national and class identity – inevitably underpin? 

I don’t know about you, but I find it challenging enough to advise and guide my own two children – let alone anyone else’s.

Instead of being proud of stories about schools and teachers who step into the dark and dismal holes left by idle, absent, irresponsible or inadequate parents, we should be communally embarrassed and ashamed. Of course, I appreciate that there will be far too many teachers who, faced with one of those dark and dismal holes tomorrow or the next day, have little or no choice but to fill it as best they can, because not to would be cruel and unkind. That doesn’t make it right.

The more teachers who admire and celebrate such pitiful stories, the more inevitable they become. The profession has a role to play in rebalancing the nation’s dysfunctional attitude towards parenting, and unless it starts to play that role, the end result will be schools reaching a point where they are simply incapable of carrying the weight of others’ responsibilities placed on them. I suspect we are nearing that point now because the focus on teacher workload, recruitment and retention are just symptoms of this wider communal failure.

Teaching can be a wonderfully rewarding, interesting, even uplifting, career. But compared to successful parenting, it’s always merely a job. 

Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author. To read more of his columns, view his back catalogue

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