Don't pass the buck

7th May 2004 at 01:00
The boundaries are blurred: where do teachers take over from parents in helping children learn? Four pundits offer their views

The Government has recently become very excited by research that purports to show that good parenting can make a 10 per cent improvement in children's outcomes at school. The Minister of State for Children, Margaret Hodge, even concludes that "the role of parents can be more important than that of a teacher".

Before parents become too flattered or teachers too zealous about sharing their workload, note the dangers. The first is that teachers will abdicate their role as educators and pass the buck. When David Miliband, the schools' minister, suggests that educational deficit starts at 22 months, one suspects that parents are being set up.

Johnny can't read? Surely it's mum's fault; after all, the Government-backed Bookstart scheme reinforces Mrs Hodge's statement that "simple things, like regularly reading to babies, make the world of difference". It also downgrades the specific professional contribution teachers make. What "makes the world of difference" to children's educational development is the transcendental power of knowledge delivered through the transformative act of teaching. Teachers should not abandon this role lightly. It allows them to pursue the meritocratic ideal of using public education to compensate for homes with meagre educational tradition.

Regardless of background, every child deserves to be introduced to the wonders of knowledge. That's what teaching is.

Despite the traditional notion of in loco parentis, teachers are charged with the public job of teaching the young how to access the world of ideas and the mind. The present confusion of roles means teachers find themselves required to take on new responsibilities, which cross over into the private sphere of parenting. Ironically, on matters of parenting, parents are not to be trusted.

Teachers also risk being recruited to preach the Government gospel of educationally correct family life. Too frequently, parents' evenings consist of explaining the need for mum and dad to spend an hour a day teaching their kids fractions, or bombarding them with DfES advice In the past, parents who helped their offspring with homework were chastised for cheating. These days, any parent who doesn't is negligent.

In essence, we should remember that teaching is professional and public, while child-rearing is amateur and private. Collapsing this distinction can only be bad for both parties.

Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas, which is holding a conference on the Role of Education on July 3-4. Details from

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