Why do some parents find school alien?

6th November 2009 at 00:00

My holiday reading was Janice Galloway's This is not about me, an account set in Saltcoats of a late 1950s childhood. With an alcoholic father, a depressive mother and a manic older sister, her childhood was never going to generate a reminiscence of an idyllic past.

Coincidentally, the period covered, 1955-1961, almost exactly matches the years I spent, as a slightly older child, close by, in Girvan, where I experienced a relatively carefree childhood, untroubled by the dark forces which assailed Galloway.

The book, however, challenged not only my perception of families in that era (for Galloway reminds us that fractured families surviving precariously are not unique to the present day), but my view of Scottish schools. She presents a picture of authoritarian institutions, controlled by harsh and arbitrary corporal punishment.

The corporal punishment at least has gone. Teachers, often incompetent, are shown as seeking to control the wider lives of their pupils. Control is the very thing which the young Janice and her wary mother feared.

While still in infant school, Janice and her mother are summoned to meet the class teacher, resplendent in feathered hat, and the infant mistress. They were told that Janice was bright but not orally communicative and had a stammer and hearing difficulties, for which sessions with the educational psychologist would be advantageous.

Janice's mother, suspicious of the teachers' motives, was uncertain how to respond. She asked if Janice did what she was told, if she was slow on the uptake, if she was cheeky. The answer to each question being "No", the response was that they should do whatever they thought best. "You're the teacher. If she's not in trouble, just you do what's best."

On leaving the interview, Janice's mother's anger and distrust burst out. "Bloody psychiatrist . There's nothing wrong with your brain. That's half the trouble. It's the Birdwoman of Alcatraz in there needs the psychiatrist, not you."

I remain uncertain of the literal accuracy of Galloway's description of schools. My early primary education in Girvan was indeed an idyll. Even when I moved to Paisley, to a school serving an area economically closer to Galloway's Saltcoats, and where belting was the order of the day, school and learning were not miserable experiences.

The relationship between Janice's mother and the school, however, is hugely significant. Today, few parents start from the publicly deferential position of "you're the teacher, you know what's best". Blind deference was never healthy, but perhaps the pendulum has swung too far. Deference has given way to contempt. Today, the rights agenda and a perhaps over- protective ethos mean that many parents often take their child's side, irrespective of the strength of professional perceptions.

It is a comment on the failure of our institutions that there remains a sizeable proportion of parents whose instinctual response to schools is still the anger and hostility privately voiced by Janice's mother after leaving the school gates.

Schools have to ask themselves what has gone wrong in our work with parents when teachers are viewed by a minority of them as an alien species, and education as an irrelevant process. Or perhaps, after years of pursuing social inclusion, governments require to ask why a tenth of the population remains, and feels, stubbornly alienated from education and from schools.

Alex Wood is headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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