No parents past this point

1st September 2006 at 01:00
OK, OK, I know. Teaching children is a partnership between teachers, children and parents, where each has an important and pertinent view, and everyone in the partnership helps the child thrive.

It's a nice thought and no doubt it all sounds fine on the front of a government glossy booklet, but life isn't quite like that. In fact, there are times when I feel like erecting a sign in the playground saying "No Parents Past This Point. We're Trying To Get On With Our Job."

This may be because I'm a headteacher, spending more and more time grappling verbally with parents who think they have lots of rights but precious few responsibilities. And it's getting worse. More and more schools struggle to find heads, and deputies are less inclined, understandably, to take a school's top position. The reasons? Paperwork, unbelievably daft Department for Education and Skills initiatives, badly behaved children - and difficult parents.

These days, a lot of my time with parents seems to be spent dealing with those who want a confrontation, and it's fortunate that open evenings and school concerts always remind me that most parents are delighted with what we do. The trouble is, the ferocious - and growing - minority take a disproportionate amount of time.

I haven't, yet, been physically attacked. But I've been threatened. I've also been trapped in my room with a difficult mother and her six-foot partner, both of whom had displayed very intimidating behaviour towards one of my younger teachers.

The memory of it stayed with her for weeks, although it seems that younger teachers come into schools these days almost expecting to be confronted.

And you sometimes despair even in life's funnier moments. One of my mothers, well endowed to the point where she walks forward at an angle - and used to getting exactly what she wants - wandered into school in a skimpy T-shirt. Blazoned across the front was the legend: Stop Staring At Me Tits! "Do you like it?" she asked. "I bought it in Margate."

How do you talk to a mother about rigorous achievement targets and striving for excellence when you're faced with something like that? I simply grinned weakly and accepted the limp stick of rock she'd bought for me.

Or there's Mrs Brown, who came to chat to Angela's teacher about homework.

The teacher mentioned that Mrs Brown looked a little drawn. "Yes," she said. "It's because my husband isn't giving me enough."

"Is he still unemployed?" asked the teacher gently. "You must be finding it difficult to cope." "Not money, love," said Mrs Brown. "He's not giving me enough sex. It's why I get so ratty with Angela. What do you think I should do about it?" The DfES and its glossy booklets don't suggest a way forward on that one.

Sometimes, even parents who seem incredibly supportive can surprise you.

Eleanor, a new parent governor, initially seemed keen to "get involved", and then became irritated when I decided to close the school for three hours so that teachers could attend the funeral of a much loved support assistant who, at 39, had died suddenly. "So what do you expect me to do with my child?" asked Betty. "The fact that somebody on your staff has died is not really my problem."

Writing end-of-term school reports for parents can become a nightmare. I read every one carefully before I sign it, but there's always the parent who quibbles. I recently spent an hour with a parent who demanded that the teacher changed a sentence that said: "Ashley sometimes finds it difficult to follow every aspect of a lesson."

It was, apparently, the teacher's fault. She wasn't explaining things properly. She wasn't giving Ashley a chance. She wasn't giving Ashley the right kind of work. Ashley was a sensitive boy and why weren't the parents called in to discuss this problem with their son?

Nevertheless, working in an inner-city school where the parents aren't slow to tell you what they think, there's often a moment of caustic wit to be enjoyed. Granny Fennick and husband Tom, for example.

We've taught their sons and all their grandchildren, and we're currently on the last one. Last week, when I was driving my shiny classic MG to school, she grinned as I passed her in the street. "I see you've still got that old banger!" she shouted. "Funny you should say that," I shouted back. "I was just going to say the same thing to Tom."

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove primary in Camberwell, south London

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