18th May 2001 at 01:00
I teach children with a range of special needs. Some have specific learning difficulties, some have severe learning difficulties, some have emotional difficulties.

Working with them daily, I've realised that these children divide themselves again. There are those who seem accepting of their special need, who will take help, who will try to apply it, who struggle with work and deadlines. They are children who cope with lessons, fit in, and don't cause too much difficulty with their teachers.

The other children rage against their area of difficulty, or simply refuse to see that they need help. They disrupt lessons, they appear ungrateful, they won't meet deadlines, and go around the school causing friction with everybody.

We spend a lot of time with their parents. And as I do this job longer, I notice a trend. One for which I have nothing but observational evidence to quantify. It is a trend that makes teachers, politicians, adults in general, uncomfortable. Pointing this out makes you unpopular.

The children most at war with themselves and with the world have parents whose work keeps them away from home. These children are dropped at school early, go back to an empty house, and have a few snatched hours with their parents in the evening. The parents don't know what their children are learning, so they can't discuss it. They might ask "Did you do your homework?", but what intelligent child will answer "No"?

I think it is time that people considered just how damaging it is for vulnerable children when they do not have consistent, quality care from a parent. I am trying not to label this a "working mothers" problem, although traditionally it is the mother who looks after the child at home. All too often, parents seem to be delighted when the child reaches school age so that they can drop them off for the day, and presume that their responsibilities end. How many timeshave you asked for a parent's opinion of their child's progress to find out that they have no idea what they are covering in school? How many times have you launched into a discussion at parents' evening to be cut short and asked, "What exactly do you teach?" In fact, the child needs the support of a parent even more once he or she has started school, when every academic year makes new intellectual and emotional demands. And the children with special needs are hit hardest.

Whatever teachers do, however charismatic we are, however knowledgeable, we cannot replace the influence of parents. The parents' attitudes become the children's. The child wants to please the parent, and that means appearing to cope well at home, and then venting all its rage on teachers during lessons. It means not talking about difficulties in school, not asking for help with homework when mum and dad are exhausted after work. And the parents are happy to perpetuate the lie that everything is OK because they want a quiet life.

I want parents to wake up to their responsibilities. We all lead pressured lives and we all need to pay the bills, but something has to give, and all too often it is the children. If schools and parents are to provide the best education for a child, then people need to start questioning what children are doing in those hours between school and when parents arrive home. How can parents feel that years spent at home with their children will be properly rewarded and respected by society? How can legislation ensure that people have a right to work part-time, or hours that will allow them to spend time with their children? If we feel that there is a growing lack of control in schools, it is because the key to happy children is happy parents. No one can control children as well as their parents do.

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, teaches in a London comprehensive

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