Elbowed aside by the pushy parents

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Some people have great expectations for their child, at the expense of other pupils, says Gordon Cairns

tatistics from the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association show that throughout Scotland in 2003 there was an increase of 40 per cent in reported cases of teachers being harassed, mostly by pupils and parents.

This behaviour is inexcusable, especially by parents who should know better. In many cases, parents take out genuinely felt frustrations in their personal lives on the unfortunate teachers they happen to come across.

However, there is another, more subtle, harassment by parents of teachers, which is probably not considered significant enough to be reported. In my opinion, certain parents are using low-level verbal harassment techniques intentionally to ensure their child receives better treatment in the classroom than their peers.

This type of customer behaviour has been identified within the health service and has actually been given a name, the Inverse Care Law. This law defines a situation where patients who have the poorest health tend to invariably receive the least treatment.

Middle-class patients generally receive better treatment than those who are less well off because the wealthier patients have higher expectations and know how to demand that these expectations are met. This law explains why rates of hip replacements among the poorest are 20 per cent below the average when there is a 30 per cent higher need.

Similarities in the make-up of these two public sector institutions show that an Inverse Care Law could exist in the education sector. Both are staffed by caring professionals, not trained to deal with aggressive tactics from their customers and both have rival private systems where customers are willing to pay to get advantage.

While it would be impossible to measure in the way that it has been in the health service, the Inverse Care Law could be applied to our comprehensive school system, where pupils who are receiving the most support at home have parents who know how to demand the best for their children from the school.

This is no crime in itself. However, in a tightly resourced system this can mean that the support for those who shout loudest is gained at the expense of those who do not exercise their voice, putting the already disadvantaged at an even greater disadvantage.

Parents who are known to be quick to complain, through a process of attrition, are more likely to have schools bend to their demands. I don't blame the schools: it is human nature to avoid conflict and if an angry voice can be silenced at the expense of an uncomplaining one, many would make the same choice.

Overly demanding parental expectations can have many subtle effects on schooling, but it is at parents' nights that social education beliefs meet the self-seeking head on. At a parents' evening for a mixed-ability S2 class, one particularly demanding parent asked me to justify much of the coursework in the classroom and then asked why I had shown the class the video of the novel they had just read. Her child had understood the text first time and she couldn't see why time should be spent on helping the poorer readers.

While I could not claim that I had been harassed in this encounter, I did feel that the parent had a particular agenda. I am sure that many teachers would be able to recall similar anecdotes. One colleague described this type of behaviour as typical of parents wanting a private-style education on the cheap.

I do not believe it is the children with learning or behavioural difficulties who necessarily lose out, as education departments cater for their individual needs. The group who suffer are those in between, without supportive parents or designated needs. For these children, an advocate fighting their corner could go a long way towards improving performance.

Both Diane Abbott and Oliver Letwin have recently been pilloried over personal decisions to send their children to independent schools instead of the local comprehensive. Many critics think these politicians are buying their children advantages and their decisions are an insult to the staff that work within the state system. While I disagree with the private school system, at least these two politicians are willing to pay.

Gordon Cairns is a supply teacher.

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