Don't let them hijack the parents;Opinion

7th May 1999 at 01:00
BY THE time this article is published I shall be suffering from severe electionitis. Oh, the pitiful ignorance of many of the comments I heard at a recent hustings. Political meetings drive me to frustration, anger and furious outbursts and, yes, in that order. However, rather uncharacteristically on this occasion (one of writing report cards, planning new courses and ongoing workload induced exhaustion) I shared with my husband my intention to remain silent.

Well, I hang my head in shame and "Shame, shame" was what I cried out when the Conservative candidate talked about reconstructing school boards and beefing up parental control. Actually, I was confused by all this vigorous thigh-slapping: after years of Tory failure to sort out education, it seemed a little feckless to be dishing up such mouldy delicacies.

Certainly, I couldn't swallow it, particularly when the meeting was informed that, through the medium of that curious phenomenon, focus groups, Scottish parents had, allegedly, requested more muscle regarding the running of schools, priorities within the curriculum and performance-related pay for teachers, to cite three items from this controversial menu. Staying dumb proved too much for me.

Anyway, I flew home from that function suite of "sound and fury" to embark on telephoning parents I know just in case there was the tiniest chance I had it all wrong. Was something radical going on that I was not party (excuse the pun) to? What do parents expect from the education system? How much involvement do they actually want? Do not sneer at such amateur research and remember that the parents I spoke to had offspring aged from five to 18.

My findings showed a dearth of parental desire to become intertwined by the minutiae of running a school. Rather, parents emphasised what they perceived to be the importance of a good experience for their children as they progressed through their school years. Most of all, they talked about having respect for the expertise of professionals who are trained to teach. They spoke of how they see the headteacher as, hopefully, the leader of a good team that works together in a consultative way, and takes decisions to benefit the pupils.

This does not mean that parents never want to question the school's wisdom. One mother said she had been horrified to learn that her daughter's school used buses without seat belts for school trips. Yet, when the headteacher was challenged, he accepted the arguments and subsequently switched bus companies.

Incidentally, this same parent stressed how she wanted her daughter to be treated as an individual but acknowledged how tempting it must be for teachers to look at pupils en masse. Her expectation from the school was that it would liaise with her on every aspect of her daughter's schooling and make the school a safe place. As a teacher and parent I do not think that this is too much to ask. Then I asked the big question. Did she want to hire and fire teachers?

Of course not, I was told, and how I loved the honesty of her logic. All parents want the best for their own child to the extent that they become blinkered and irrational about the idiosyncrasies of the teachers with whom their darlings may have a personality clash. I know it's not quite the same thing but my mother still broods darkly about the school doctor who prodded me in the stomach - at the impressionable age of seven - and declared:

"You're a little podge, aren't you."

Why, then, do some politicians assume that all parents want to control "bad" teachers? There are plenty of lousy doctors and inept lawyers yet no one is advocating setting up little committees to sack them. Parents don't want to be pointed towards trashing teachers apropos of nothing more substantial than personal dislike and baggage from their own schooldays. It is precisely our very natural instinct to protect our own children that makes us ill-qualified to hire and fire.

And I'm not listening to any more blethers at political meetings - from now on I'm sticking to Lucozade for my daily bounce.

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