Moving toward danger;Platform;Opinion;News amp; Opinion

12th November 1999 at 00:00
' If teachers want change in our education system, it's time they learned to work with pupils' parents - despite the tensions, writes Andy Hargreaves.

PARENTS are hailed as teachers' best partners, and one of their most underused resources. Yet to many teachers, parents sometimes seem less like partners than a problem and a pain.

The obstacles to effective teacher-parent relationships are formidable. Parents are concerned about their own child - but teachers must consider the whole class. The escalating time pressures of implementing literacy and numeracy hours, or other initiatives, squeeze teacher-parent interactions into the margins. Moreover, parents can be excessively anxious for their children and insistent that, as former pupils, they have a right to question teachers.

When we researched the emotions of teaching, we asked teachers to describe positive and negative episodes with students, parents and others. The most common negatives were when parents questioned teachers' expertise, judgments, and purposes.

Teachers complained when parents queried how they taught; when they intimidated teachers into giving children higher marks; when they refused teachers' offers of extra help and purchased private tuition instead; when they demanded to see curriculum documents; or believed their child before the teacher.

Teachers get upset when parents fail to understand their classroom practices.

As one teacher insisted: "I'm the one with the expertise. I'm the one with the education. I'm the one with the degree. she (the parent) is to be there to help." Paradoxically, if teachers want more support and understanding from parents, they must risk inviting (and responding to) criticism. The way forward is to overcome their anxieties, and "move towards the danger" of working with parents more openly and effectively.

Opening up to parents will also help teachers to turn around public attitudes to their work. The public is yet to be convinced that teachers need more time to work with each other as well as their pupils, that teaching and pupils have changed, or that tax increases are necessary to benefit the state education system and the quality of teachers in it.

For too long, parents have been prone to nostalgia, jaundiced by political and media-driven criticisms of teachers, and swayed by the market-ideology of parental choice which tells them that at least their private choices can benefit their own children. It is vital that they should work in partnership with the public, to create a powerful social movement which improves the quality of teaching and learning for all.

What I have in mind is something like the Green or women's movements, with beliefs and principles - meant to benefit everyone - which drive the movement and hold it together.

Social movements are embedded in a long-term perspective which advances the good of all our children and grandchildren. What better candidate for a social movement than public education?

Governments have dealt teachers such a bad hand in the past decade - overloading them with change, restricting professional discretion and shaming them as responsible for educational failure - that the profession is in a crisis of recruitment as its image tailspins downwards.

Do we have to wait for recruitment to dry up before we grasp how important teachers are? It is time for teachers to capture the public imagination about education and teaching today, on which government policy ultimately depends. We will know that such a social movement for developing state education is truly under way when: The public joins teachers' protests against governments which try to reduce teachers' classroom discretion and time to learn out of class, or which overload them with demands.

Teachers' unions don't just protest about government changes they oppose but also advocate changes that will benefit all pupils - even if this requires their members to learn new practices.

Governments face the fact they have contributed to low educational standards through waves of poorly-planned reform, quick-fix solutions and run-down investment in state education.

More parents make educational choices which commit them to state education and the public good rather than only their own children.

Parents and the public ask for increased taxes to be taken out of their own pockets for the future of state education.

Educators open their schools and systems to public celebrations of learning through performances, exhibitions, teach-ins and Education Weeks and when they treat every parents' evening, piece of homework and conversation at the school gates as a "teachable moment" to influence parents about learning and teaching.

Closing the door on parents, or trying to control the interaction with them, is in teachers' worst interests. Moving towards the danger, in order to engineer long-term changes in public perception, is the more exciting - and essential - way.

Andy Hargreaves is professor in education and director of the International Centre for Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Canada

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