From the editor - Size matters when parents get too big for their boots

27th January 2012 at 00:00

Parents, as P. J. O'Rourke pointed out, are difficult to discipline properly because of their size. Mothers and fathers, many teachers would agree, are trouble. It's a shame about the height thing, but at least the parent-wary can rely on a certain amount of distance between home and school.

Well, they could until now. Unfortunately for those who believe parents should rarely be seen and certainly not heard, things are about to get a lot trickier. The government is giving parents more powers to shape education just as it is removing powers from local authorities. Not only are parents being encouraged to act as surrogate inspectors courtesy of Ofsted's new ratings website, they are also being urged to become founders and set up new free schools (pages 28-33).

It's easy to see Ofsted's initiative attracting the type of concerned citizen who regularly calls talk radio to complain about traffic wardens, dog shit and immigrants. It is harder to envisage how its online welcome mat for busybodies will make the slightest contribution to teaching and learning.

Free schools are a different matter. They have drawn more ideological flak, but at least they exhibit signs of being a response to local demand rather than a bureaucrat's bad idea of what democratic input should look like. To diehard opponents of free schools, the revolting parents of Kirklees and Lambeth are easily dismissed as selfish middle-class upstarts. But even their critics should concede that they are motivated by frustration with an unresponsive educational establishment and a desire to do the best for their children. Or is parental activism only acceptable if it's defending weak local authority schools?

If those critics are feeling a mite more generous, could they also concede that allowing locals to establish new schools might spur creativity and innovation (pages 14-15)? Or do elected officials have a monopoly on good ideas?

But there is a concession that supporters of free schools should make, too. And it is a big one. If, as I argued two weeks ago, popular schools do not have the right to be rubbish, they also do not have the right to plough on regardless of the effects on the wider community, be they local authority or free.

Admittedly, it is more difficult to ascertain the fallout from a proposed school than judge the record of an existing one. Even so, one can suppose that if parents open a school in an area with too much provision the consequences for other schools and local budgets will be dire. And it isn't difficult to suppose that if a free school becomes the preserve of the demanding middle classes the effect on the inarticulate poor will be catastrophic.

To manage these competing interests fairly requires judgement, an absence of ideological bickering and an honest dialogue between local authorities and Whitehall. Unfortunately, the chances of that happening soon are diddly-squat. Fortunately, the ambitions of most parents are less grandiose. Most do not want to open another school; they just want to be reassured about the one their children are in. The power they crave is transparent information. For example, how about comprehensible school reports that aren't a pottage of indecipherable numbers? Or explanations of what number lines are? Or some reassurance that if they put "chunking" into a search engine it won't direct them to a porn site? Involving parents at that level shouldn't frighten any horses.

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