Whose child is it anyway?

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Teachers are forced to play mum and dad as parents are told to look after their kids' education, writes Joanna Williams.

Should I worry about what my pupils eat for lunch? What about the thin girl whose packed lunch I routinely find uneaten at the bottom of my waste bin? What about the boy I know spends his lunch money on cigarettes? Or the girl who only ever eats chips and Mars Bars?

Which of these cases are my concern and which are a matter for their parents? Increasingly, teachers are being asked to step into the parental role.

Most teachers care about their pupils' well-being. Indeed, I would be concerned about each of the three pupils. However, what is happening now is a formalisation of the role of teacher as substitute parent. In the revised national curriculum for key stage 4 pupils, apart from English, maths and science, the only core elements remaining are citizenship, sex education and religious education.

Teachers are to become responsible for turning out good citizens with an awareness of ethical and environmental issues. We are to teach pupils the correct way to conduct themselves in relationships, the importance of voting in elections and the necessity of recycling tin cans. Is this really a better use of school hours than lessons in history, French or music?

Alongside the rise of citizenship and the explosion of pastoral responsibilities, many traditional subjects have altered their content to become more "relevant", meaning more concerned with ethical issues. English teachers will now teach about racism and bullying. Geography teachers are expected to cover the damaging impact of tourism and the importance of renewable energy. Science lessons will be about the location of mobile phone masts and the morality of genetic engineering. The teacher of today must have exacting moral credentials.

One irony of recent developments is that the more teachers are expected to take on duties previously considered the responsibility of parents, the more parents are held accountable for their child's educational attainment.

Low literacy levels are blamed on parents not reading to their children; poor communication skills on parents buying expensive toys in lieu of quality time. Parents are often expected to play their part in helping with homework and later, coursework. Home-school agreements formally bring parents in line with the expectations of the school.

The Government has lost faith in the natural instincts of parents to bring up their own children. It is a sign of its lack of confidence in ordinary people that teachers need to be recruited to push the correct line on moral issues. The media representation of parents is invariably negative. Parents are in the news for leaving their children home alone, condoning truancy, taking family holidays during term time, and at worst, cases of child abuse. It is as if raising children, something parents have been doing since time immemorial, can no longer be trusted to parents.

However, as teachers accept the responsibility for producing morally upright citizens, we need to be prepared for the blame that comes with such accountability. Next time there is a low turn-out at an election, the call may well be "what were the teachers up to in citizenship class?" Next time there is an increase in the number of teenage pregnancies, questions will be asked about teachers responsible for sex education.

The problem I have with blurring the boundaries between the roles of teachers and parents is not just about apportioning blame. Teachers are trained to teach and have a subject knowledge they are able to impart to youngsters. Parents love their children and have a desire to bring them up the best they can in their chosen values system. To ask teachers to care like parents and parents to act like teachers only serves to undermine both roles. For example, I do not believe that recycling my rubbish is the best way to protect the environment. Yet this is what my son learns at school.

As a busy working mum, I do not always have the time to hear my children read. But this is what their school expects.

Maybe life would be a great deal simpler if teachers were left to teach and parents were left to influence their child's morality. That way, my son could learn to read at school with teachers expertly trained to help him.

And I could tell him why I think recycling is a load of rubbish.

Joanna Williams is an English home tuition tutor.

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