In the first of a series in which TES writers express their gripes, Peter Wilby takes issue with letting alcoholics play barmen
Many years ago, I agreed to run a five-week course on parents' rights at my local college. I prepared material on when parents could take family holidays during term time, whether they could refuse to buy uniforms and how they could stop their children being beaten (then still legal in schools). I envisaged role-playing sessions in which unconfident parents from the local council estate would learn how to tackle teachers on equal terms. I drew up tips on how they could support their children in their homework. It soon became clear that the members of my class - 14 formidable middle-class mothers and one slightly less formidable middle-class father - were interested in none of this. They were interested in just two questions. Which was the best local secondary school? And how could they be certain of getting their children into it? When it became clear that I couldn't give a straight answer to either question, weekly attendance fell sharply.
I have no doubt these people were admirable citizens in every respect; the sort who organise charity collections, buy organic food and conscientiously cast their votes in general elections. I believe in democracy and would trust the masses with decisions on war and peace, nuclear power stations, and Bank of England base rates. But if they have young children, I would not trust them with decisions on education. Parenthood brings out the worst in everyone. Parents are besotted with their children and think either that they are geniuses or, if they are very obviously not, that they are the victims of some rare condition. Either way, their child has "special needs" which, by logical extension, means other people's children don't.
Parents have become monsters ever since they started to limit their families and bear children late in life, often when they have given up on other ambitions such as getting a better job or a better spouse. Never mind one-parent families; one-child families are a far bigger social menace.
When parents had four or five children, they understood that children could vary enormously, in intelligence, application and behaviour. Equally, they understood that a child's success or failure was no reflection on themselves, still less on the extent to which they had exercised their "parent power". How could it be, when one child might turn out as an unemployed drug addict and another as a top surgeon?
Now parents have all their eggs, as it were, in one or, at most, two baskets. As David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has said, parent power "is like putting an alcoholic in charge of a bar". The idea that parents have anything to say on, for example, the quality of teaching is preposterous. Most parents judge a teacher's abilities purely on whether or not their own child is top of the class.
In this year's general election campaign, we were told - by a Guardian reporter - that parent power was "the big new idea for the third term". But politicians have been wittering on about parent power for 30 years. I cannot remember an election in which one or other party didn't fall back on this vacuous slogan. After giving parents choice of schools (nominally), places on governing bodies and home-school contracts, the politicians had to come up with something new. So parents got the right to call in Ofsted, the chance to start state-financed schools in Mum's spare time, and the option of one-to-one tuition if their little paragon dipped below the top three in the class.
But we ought by now to have rumbled parents for the blinkered, anti-social hypocrites they are. I repeat: parents can be decent people in every other respect. They are often kind to their old mothers, sentimental about animals and scrupulous about their personal hygiene. So were Hitler, Stalin and the Kray twins. When it comes to their children's education, however, parents will lie, cheat and bully. We all know of parents who undergo midnight religious conversions to get their children into a desired school (as an atheist, I take false witness more seriously than the Church of England does). We also know of those who give false addresses - a fraud that would get them sent to jail if they did it in any other context. They have so far stopped short of murder, but I wouldn't be surprised to read of an 11-year-old at a voluntary-aided school being bumped off in order to create a vacancy for another child.
Far from encouraging parent power, governments and schools should do everything to discourage it. Children are born and brought up unequally, because their parents are unequal. A public education system should iron out inequalities, not accentuate them. And everything about parent power - the right to choose schools, the involvement with the curriculum, the representation on governing bodies - simply reproduces social inequality inside the schools. Parent power has increased and is still increasing. It ought to be reduced.
Next week: Julie Greenhough on "The trouble with INSET"