When loyalties are divided over failure;Comment;Opinion

15th March 1996 at 00:00
It is something of a privilege to visit a school in a professional role and also as a parent. The combination of insights is illuminating but can also give rise to disturbing tensions. It is not a position to abuse, given the dual concern for the job and for the well-being of the kids but it is hard to be an observer of intricacies of school life which are painful and frustrating, or to hear of such incidents.

The professional observer of my kids' school would state simply that, like many others, it has its problems but has also a clutch of staff who are trying hard. The problems are familiar. They reflect tired management, divisions among the staff and a pupil population with diverse needs and skills which make teaching particularly challenging work.

The professional response is to offer the school support through staff development and other initiatives to provide strengths and skills. The aim is to sharpen up what happens in classrooms and the ways in which staff respond to individual and collective needs of pupils. So far so good.

But it is hard to be patient and professional when you hear for the umpteenth time that Mr A has spent most of the period in the corridor chatting to his pal from the next classroom. Or that Mr L gives homework but never takes it in. As for Mrs T, she is never ready when the class arrives.

During the course of an evening while I cook supper, do the washing and wander in and out of teenage bedrooms, I hear that Mr D, paying little heed that two pupils in the classroom who were studying to resit an exam, announced that those who failed last year were tossers.

Another child was told by Ms E that Mrs F thinks he is a waster and they all show scorn for the fact that Mrs B and Mr C, whose smiling wife and children we all saw at the school concert, are having a very blatant affair.

Most shocking is the matter of fact way in which the details emerge. Do I believe them? Because they are overheard or shared without intent to prompt me into complaining, and because I trust my children, there is little alternative. The parents of the others concerned are not ones to complain. So should I do anything?

The Harriet Harman fiasco has made me think deeply about these issues. I support our local school out of loyalty to the community, a belief that my children benefit from being educated within it and a commitment to comprehensive education. Parents should not abandon their local schools when they perceive there are difficulties. Ms Harman, as a member of Labour's frontbench team, was well placed to respond to anxieties about her local school and lobby for additional resources and support. She could have done much to encourage other parents to throw their weight behind the school to work collectively to improve it.

Yet when I think of my own inhibitions about going to talk to the headteacher about all this unsolicited information I have accrued I realise it is not so easy. Taking complaints to school is hard. As parents, we have to feel confident that discussions will be worth while. Schools must show us that they want communication to be two-way and not confined to issues where they tell us what the score is.

We will muck in with fund-raising, we will support school events and listen to advice about the curriculum or subject choices but we require, in return, to be listened to and to see evidence that what we have to say is taken seriously.

Importantly, when parents are worried, schools must not insist in that patronising way that we are only interested in our own children. Nonsense. Being part of a community means that you know and care about heaps of children and their families and you also care about the school as a whole. Surely this is what the school should be aiming to achieve?

So why do I hesitate? Because my loyalties are divided. Because I know intimately the stresses facing management and teaching staff in schools. Because I want to believe that these are temporary, forgivable aberrations which will be replaced by splendid and inspiring teaching, reminding me of the skill and sensitivity which can exist within the profession.

Because I have a gut feeling that my initiative will be diminished, fobbed off and not responded to in any way which could be called helpful or professional. Because to bring all of this into the open is, as a professional, to admit to and be part of the collective shame.

But loyalties as a parent and community member are equally strong. I crave for my children and their friends the quality of teaching, the humanity and the respect which should be theirs of right. Seeing them laugh off lazy, abusive and unprofessional behaviour is strangely sinister. If kids learn nothing else from school, they learn through simple propinquity, through the role models available, about how adults operate in the world of work.

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