Mutual respect will tame pit-bull parents

13th July 2001 at 01:00
ou have to handle parents rather like dogs. Don't ever get into an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with one, and never let them form packs." This alarming "Barbara Woodhouse of education" was the headmistress of a high-achieving independent girls' school. And this was her response when I told her I was working on an international study of parents' involvement in education.

An aristocratic and imposing woman, I imagine the only parent trouble she ever had was from slavering fathers - the kind who get a frisson from pretending they are reduced to a state of quivering dread by their daughters' headteachers, even though they are successful bankers and captains of industry.

Alas, poor Sylvia Moore, imprisoned in her office, was forced into a confrontation with two violent parents - pit-bulls, rather than the daffy labradors of the private sector. She was undoubtedly a victim of two unpleasant people, but she was also a victim of our national squeamishness when it comes to confronting the truth about parents and schools.

Ideally, of course, parents and teachers work together in the best interests of the child. There is a great deal of political rhetoric about "partnership", but the pious talk ignores how far the relationship can be characterised by tension and anxiety on both sides. Teachers who are also parents well understand this, and can be very illuminating on the subject. They know what it's like to be on the other side of the table at parents' evening - and research shows that teachers often become more understanding of parents' point of view once they too have offspring.

Yet, while teachers and parents are exhorted to work together as partners, parents are also encouraged see themselves as consumers, shopping around for the best on the market. Am I a "partner" with my local supermarket? No, I simply expect them to make the goods available. All I have to do is turn up with my money. My role in the transaction is pretty straightforward and I have virtually no responsibility for making sure it's successful. If I'm dissatisfied I can easily go elsewhere.

The notion of parents as consumers with choices has been revolutionary because it emphasises their right to a decent education for their child - and this is important. But it's only a metaphor, not a satisfactory description of the real relationship between parent, child and school. (And don't tell me that it works like this in independent schools. The whole point of the private sector is that the schools choose their customers, not the other way round.) For a start, unlike the shopper, the parent has real obligations and responsibilities - and some do not fulfil them, which makes the school's job harder. And the parents who have not prepared their children properly for learning are often those who are least willing to take the advice of the school. Partnership is never easy when the partners don't trust or respect each other. Add to this, Britain's divided and class-conscious culture. Difficult parents are often full of anger and hatred for the way they have been treated by officialdom - but have little insight into their behaviour.

Politicians have not helped us to think more clearly. Successive Tory governments used parents as a weapon, as a way of putting pressure on schools. The assumption was that any right-thinking parent must share the views of Kenneth Baker. The parentgovernment love affair fell apart when John Patten described a parents' deputation who disagreed with him as "Neanderthal".

This government is more realistic, and the new measures to control difficult parents will be welcomed by teachers; but they are no substitute for an honest debate on tensions between parents and schools. Managing parents is an important skill in a headteacher's repertoire. I wonder, do they teach it at the Leadership College?

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