Teachers can not fill the parental gap;Opinion;News and opinion

10th December 1999 at 00:00
AS I write I am listening to the early morning radio news. A councillor from the district in which a 13-year-old has fathered twins is telling the nation that the real problem for this boy was that he was a persistent truant, who had not received the benefit of PSHE classes, sex education and the encouragement of adult role models - presumably teachers. We also heard from the boy''s mother, who predictably pointed out that she worked and did as much as she could to give her son guidance. Possibly true. But neither she, nor we, should then assume that it is the school's job to fill the gap.

Schools may have created the trap for themselves. I know all too well how responsible teachers feel, and that the natural instinct is to say that where the home does not offer children support, it should be down to teachers to ensure that the children do not suffer.

It becomes the teacher's duty to instruct children about sex, to ensure that they get to school, to impose sanctions for ignored homework. Thus enormous amounts of time is spent in unofficial (and unrewarded) pastoral care.

But the school cannot be a default mechanism for society. Every now and again we hear remarkable stories of inspiring teachers transforming lives; but these are rare events and take a kind of effort that most teachers have to reserve for understanding the national curriculum and its demands. Such support can neither be consistent nor comprehensive. These are, when all is said and done, someone else's children living in someone else's home.

There is a deeper problem. Teachers are unsuited to being stand-in parents. They have no time and are not trained for the job. Recent public scandals have shown that the closer teachers are to their pupils the greater the risk of either improper relationships - or at least being accused of improper conduct. Yet, over the past two decades or so, the idea seems to have taken hold, both among the public and teachers that they should play a major role in children's emotional health as well as their academic or physical well being. It is certainly true that an unhappy or underfed student will probably underachieve - but it is not the teacher's responsibility to get the child to school in good shape. That is the job of families, or where they fail, of other social agencies.

An exasperated teacher might say that this is all very well, but she, by law, has to deal with the little brats every day, and that no-one can force parents, or anybody else to help. That's why we could look carefully at those schools which seem to give teachers the chance to hold the families and communities accountable for their shortcomings.

This week the Prime Minister has attacked the idea of a north-south divide in Britain as simplistic. He's right - passing through several of the poorest districts in the country every day on my way to work, gives me a regular reminder that there are as many people living with deprivation and desperation in the richest city in Europe as in any former mining district or steel town.

But my impression is that there is a serious educational divide, and that the line may be drawn between small towns and big ones. Towns where there is a limited choice of schools seem to value them more, and to have a civic pride in the institutions - everyone knows where they are and they are part of the community's life. In London, Birmingham, or Manchester, where children can travel across borders to escape the neighbourhood - or even go independent or voluntary-aided - there seems to be less loyalty, and a correspondingly poorer relationship with the community. I do not think I would argue for a reduction of choice or mobility. I am not even sure I know what the answer is. But I do know that we cannot ask schools to stand in for families and communities, and until we learn how to restore the partnership between those inside the school gates and those outside them, many children are going to find themselves lost in the transition.

Trevor Phillips is a broadcaster and journalist

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