We need parents on side, not at each others' throats

31st July 2009 at 01:00

So, parents are going to get the right to report mothers and fathers of disruptive pupils to education authorities. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, hopes that the proposal will help to stop individual pupils disrupting a class. It is part of his plan to bring in contracts for parents, to improve behaviour in the classroom and to encourage families to take more responsibility for their children.

This is indeed laudable, but I fail to understand what can be gained from parents reporting each other for failing to follow the home-school agreement. For a start, how would they know? How could they prove it? And what would the local authority, once informed, do about it?

It seems the aim is to collect evidence for a parenting order. Yet, as we all know, there are many pupils who misbehave in school who come from homes where parents follow all the rules and try their very best to support the school - but those teenage hormones take over! It is not always the parents' fault, and we must not absolve young people from responsibility for their own behaviour.

Those of us who have had to deal with feuding families and warring parents will know that these are far more difficult to sort out than disruptive pupils. This new legislation will not do much for community cohesion, especially in schools where the majority of pupils live locally. Where a parent finds out that someone has made a complaint about their parenting skills, the repercussions could be extremely negative.

To date, I have never known a parent refuse to sign the home-school agreement. The problem comes when it needs to be enforced. Many parents are blind to their own children's shortcomings. They refuse to believe that their child could be a bully or a disruptive element; they always believe it is someone else who causes the problem.

Mr Balls said: "Heads will be able to say to the recalcitrant parents, if you do not sign this or make sure they do the homework, or support discipline, then we will take that as evidence in the magistrates' court." Perhaps Mr Balls would like to come and have that conversation with some of my more difficult and aggressive parents. It is certainly not a job I look forward to.

In my experience, threatening parents is not a good way to facilitate good working partnerships. We need to get parents on side, not alienate them.

One bit of this new legislation that I do like is that home-school agreements should now be personalised so children will have the schools' expectations of their own, and their parents', behaviour specified. We already do this to a certain extent in that we meet individual children and their parents where behaviour has been problematic at primary school, or if they are transferring from another secondary under similar circumstances. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn't. Sadly, we know that we just have to keep plugging away and try lots of different strategies and hope that collectively they bring about the changes we need.

The proposal is that if parents fail to uphold this personalised agreement and bad behaviour continues, the school will ask them to enter into a parenting contract with the school. The agreement will also detail what support will be provided for the child and where their own and their parents' particular responsibilities lie. This is rather like the multi-disciplinary common assessment framework we currently use.

For me, the personalised approach is the way to go as the majority of parents do everything they can to support their child and the school. Those who need help with parenting should be offered appropriate help, and if the school can't provide it, they must flag up to families where that support exists and help them get it.

In our case, as an extended school, much of this support is provided on the school site because we know that a dysfunctional (even a temporarily dysfunctional) family will not have the wherewithal to get themselves to a family therapy centre regularly. Therefore we bring the family therapist to the school and then we go and collect the family so that they can benefit from the support. While this may be seen as nannying, it is effective and does reap the rewards.

The more I look at the proposals like this one made in the new schools bill, the more I worry that much of what is being suggested is over-bureaucratic and expensive, without any clear notion of what the expected impact will be. Those who write education bills and policy do so with the very best of intentions. However, they are not always thought through and are often not very practical. As ever, it will be the headteachers and local authorities who are going to be left to figure out how they can be made to work.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher, George Green's School, Tower Hamlets, east London.

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