We are not to blame for the state of families today

26th March 2010 at 00:00

A general election is looming. The middle-class vote matters - again! Suddenly, major politicians start arguing about marriage and the family. Tax breaks for married couples and all that.

Teachers up and down the country must be agog with cynicism. After all, aren't schools to blame for pupils' misbehaviour, truancy, exclusion, examination performance and illiteracy?

One of the advantages of being a politician is that you are allowed to change your mind. Wind direction or political sensitivities of the day can alter the focus of their attention. Politicians are allowed to extort their solutions to tricky situations by telling the public how to do things better.

Unfortunately, teachers have no such advantage. If they had, teachers would have been telling politicians for years that family life, family values and parenting skills have been in decline. It is not solely about marriage and divorce, it is also about what happens inside the home. Are the children part of a loving, caring relationship or are they an inconvenience to be tolerated?

Teachers have long known that their jobs have been made more difficult because of a lack of parental support. This lack of support can be academic - failing to help the child with homework or arranging for peace and quiet at home to make revision possible - or it might be behavioural. How many parents, for example, encourage or allow their under-age child to drink alcohol at home or to sit up until the early hours watching television?

An examination of national census returns and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) statistics quickly reveals the decline of the nuclear family unit in Britain today. In 1959, fewer than two per cent of marriages ended in divorce. Today, in parts of the UK, a child starting school at three or four has approximately a 5050 chance of living in the same home as both of her parents by the time she leaves school at 16 or 18.

Many parents frequently change partners. As they do so, their children have to learn to adjust to the new circumstances. Sometimes these changes are in children's interests, sometimes they are not. But, apart from in extreme circumstances, there is very little the child can do about it other than accept their "lot".

Research has consistently shown that home background matters more than any other single factor when it comes to both academic and behavioural performance. Consider a few examples. Research dating from the late 1950s all the way up to recent studies has shown that most truants emanate from disadvantaged and disaffected home backgrounds. Children who are bullied at home tend to become bullies at school.

Later in life, these children grow up to nurture second or third generation truants and bullies. Children who were bullied at home tend to become bullies as parents. Moreover, truants, excluded pupils and bullies become more dependent upon the state as adults than any other group. They also experience more family disharmony and are more likely to spend time in jail. They often commit misdemeanours.

It is these very groups who avoid schools, parents' evenings and the like and who do not provide support for teachers. Rather, they all too frequently blame teachers for all their problems or the problems they themselves have created for their own children.

For years, teachers have tried to argue their case. But have the politicians been listening? No. In an era of political correctness and health and safety, teachers have been left to cope as best they can. Periodically, as issues arise, it has been convenient to blame the teacher or the school for almost every conceivable fault.

What teachers would like to hear from politicians is that, in future, they and their schools will have full government support to carry out their professional practice. They would like to feel that the state backs and trusts them not only in their jobs but in their judgments.

They would also like to feel that the Government will do all it can to improve parenting skills and to encourage parents to bring up their children in a loving environment. Unless they do so, the position for teachers in schools will get progressively more difficult. Moreover, initiatives to combat truancy, exclusion and misbehaviour are likely to increase as more and more pupils react to their home circumstances.

The reality of education in the UK today is that schools, local authorities and support agencies are doing more than ever before to help "manage" difficult situations caused by family disintegration. It is costing the state billions of pounds every year. But rather than attempting to fix the cause, politicians are taking the easy route by blaming everybody else, including teachers and their schools.

Teachers cannot fix society, only politicians can do that. But have they got the mettle?

Professor Ken Reid

Former chair of the National Behaviour and Attendance Review in Wales.

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