The mother of all responsibilities

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
In this, his last column, Ewan Aitken says parents' relationship with their children is fundamental to whether they receive a good education - or not

was talking to one of my constituents on the way home from work. "I hate going home," she said. "The house is so quiet now the kids are away. I mean, they drove me mad with their music and their fighting but, compared to the silence, it was heaven!"

Young people can never get it right. Once they are born, we encourage them to learn to walk and talk, but then we spend all our time trying to get them to sit down and shut up. We want them to be independent so we no longer need to design our days around their social activities, but we constantly want them to tell us where they are. We look forward to their departure so the house stops being treated like a hotel, but we miss them deeply when they are gone.

Parenthood is the toughest job, but the one for which we get least training. Yet, if recent newspaper articles are to be believed, it is also the most dangerous for children. According to one report, parental fears about crime and potential abuse of children mean we are over-protecting children, not letting them out to play and watching them getting fat as a consequence.

In another revelation, Scots schoolchildren are losing the ability to learn for themselves because they are getting too much help with homework from their parents, at least according to one university principal.

The best-selling book Freakonomics argues that, no matter what we do, the biggest single influence on a child's progress is the educational attainment of the mother and that, by the time the child is at school, it is too late to do anything about it.

It all seems much too contradictory. When my wife was pregnant, I gave up reading parenting books because they contradicted each other. Instead, I decided to work to one rule - ask myself in any situation: "Is what's happening to my children fair?"

It is not a panacea for all the challenges of parenting. I have no doubt that, if you were to ask my kids whether I was fair, they would be unconvinced. But just following a formula laid down by someone else wasn't going to meet their needs.

Yet, while there may be no magic formula, there must be expectations on parents - perhaps another contradiction. So much of a community is built on the quality of the parent-children relationships. The better those relationships, the better the school, the happier the families, the stronger the neighbour bonds, the fewer the issues around anti-social behaviour, and so on.

That is why I set up a parenting project in my council ward for families who were struggling. It has proved highly successful and has included the use of more than 20 teenagers as peer mentors, helping kids who do not get good guidance at home to see the potential of other choices.

I have taken that further, on a city-wide basis, with an early intervention project which is joining up the work of several professionals. They are working with families to take a holistic view of all the relationships in a home, not just the ones that end up in actions we then have to respond to.

Lives have already been changed for the better.

After four-plus years as a TESS columnist, I am signing off, leaving my journalistic home for an unknown destination. In those four years, I have written about many aspects of education and the potential for change and progress in and around schools. In that gift of time to reflect, I have reached several conclusions.

First, league tables remain as damaging to everyone now as they were then, but especially to parents who are trying to get information to make the best decisions for their children.

Second, the vast majority of teachers and school staff do an amazing job in sometimes difficult circumstances.

Third, if politicians want to make a difference in schools, they should spend more time looking at what happens outside school than focusing on controlling what happens inside the classroom. We need to do much more to help families, in whatever shape and size they come, to be families and to take responsibility for each other and for their choices. Where necessary, we should intervene earlier to help families heal, change or grow in a different shape.

The education of our children is, I believe, the fundamental building block of society. We need to look not only at what we expect of schools, but at what we expect of parents. Where these expectations are not being met, we must know how to respond so they can be met without the constant allegation of "nanny state" ringing in our ears.

Perhaps that is yet another contradiction but, somehow, it is in grappling with the tensions which contradictions bring that we discover something more meaningful than we would from a life without struggle.

Ewan Aitken is leader of Edinburgh City Council

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