Dear parent, you are a depraved, immoral failure

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Thirty years ago, in the first day or two of my teaching career, I sat at the side of the hall in assembly with my newly trimmed hair, my hippy clothes left behind in the wardrobe, listening to the head of lower school intone moral messages to rows of children who sat before her in jolly black jumpers: "One of the worst things you can do," she said, "is climb trees."

Really? There's no doubt it can be dangerous and bad for the shoes or skull, but the worst thing you can do? What about a little light bullying, or recreational theft? Or a pinch and a stabbing on the first of the month? I am sure she was genuine in wanting children to avoid death by gravity, and the school to avoid legal liability, but to make it a moral issue muddles a sensible scale of values.

But schools will insist on being morally pious at the wrong time over the wrong things. Recently I got two letters about my children's attendance, and I felt I was in assembly again. My daughter Annie, in Year 7, had only achieved 88.89 per cent attendance and was apparently "giving cause for concern". Well, her flu had been quite worrying. But the tone became more lofty. "We will continue to monitor the attendance of Annie..." (oh good, I don't have to bother, then) "Iand if it does not improve then alternative strategies may need to be explored, including a visit from the education welfare officer, referral to the governing body or the local authority."

The other letter was about my son in Year 11. He'd apparently only achieved 80 per cent, which was a worry, until I queried it, and the figure was revised to 93 per cent.

At the moment my daughter seems to think it is her purpose in life to be good and not break the rules. I spend a good deal of my evenings advising on homework, spouting adjectives suitable for spooky stories as I finish the tea things. My family are quite pleased with me - a thesaurus that also does the washing up. After Year 7 work, I move on to GCSE advice on coursework and, sometimes, a brief consultation with my eldest son on A2 work and the pros and cons of gap years.

If Annie doesn't trust me, she phones a Year 7 friend for advice.

Unfortunately this friend and her parents have also been threatened with the EWO, governing body and local authority and the implication they're failing in their duty because their daughter has been ill and she's only managed 88 per cent or so attendance.

These parents are angry, entertaining wild fantasies about making their daughter go to school next time she's ill so she infects everybody, and everyone's absent. Schools make us mature like that. But if schools want parents to take them seriously, they've got to get the tone right.

I'm not angry, just bemused, because as a teacher I'm caught in the trap at both ends, hearing myself spout similar pious nonsense about the importance of Sats. Sats? Important? To the school, maybe. To keep Ofsted off our backs - certainly. But important to pupils? Not really. So please, let's be honest, proportionate and less pompous. Sats are not like GCSEs. I have taken my parental responsibilities seriously and instructed my 15-year-old son not to go off the rails until June 20. And then I'll bequeath him my kaftans.

James Lee teaches in the north of England. He writes under a pseudonym

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