Parenting orders lay the blame for children's behaviour firmly on parents, while ignoring the failures of schools and teachers to meet their needs, new research claims.
Dr Eleanor Peters, lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at Edge Hill University, spent 18 months evaluating the parenting classes that recipients of parenting orders are required to attend. She conducted detailed interviews with participants at these sessions.
Despite their studiedly neutral language, Peters says: "Parenting orders are really mothering orders ... The number of parenting orders made against women vastly outnumber those made against men."
The mothers felt that there was undoubted stigma attached to parenting orders: it was official confirmation that they were bad parents. Several asked Peters whether it was true that the murdered Baby P's mother had been on a parenting order, confirming the link in their mind between parenting orders and abuse.
"Basically, they have been told 'You are a rubbish parent'," one of the professionals working with the mothers says. "You can jazz it up any way you like, but that's what parents hear."
In fact, many mothers had been attempting to deal with their child's behavioural problems for months and felt that the school had done little to help. Ivy was one such mother. Her two older children had done well at school and she expected the same for her youngest daughter, now 14.
But Ivy was in the process of leaving a violent relationship. She went into her 14-year-old daughter's school to explain this situation. "The school just used that as a total weapon against me," she says. She believed that the school was failing to meet her daughter's needs and her relationship with the headteacher broke down irretrievably. "I wouldn't even phone the school if she was off sick," she says. "I wouldn't even speak to them."
She was not the only mother who felt powerless during interactions with teachers. Gail, for example, consistently asserted that her son was being bullied. But, she says, the school did not take these concerns seriously. "There's only so much stick you can take, and he did take stick," she says. "I won't drag him into school ... I feel worse than the bullies."
Other mothers had similarly well-intentioned reasons for keeping their children off school. Annette, who was being prosecuted for the truancy of her six-year-old daughter, had been a victim of gang-based violence near her home. She was keeping her daughter at home out of fear of follow-up attacks.
And Donna was similarly afraid for her 13-year-old son's safety. "A lad younger than John got shot last week," she says. "I can't trust anyone. I won't let no one near him, so half the time I kept him off school when I shouldn't have. But I was scared."
The problem, Peters suggests, is that schools and local authorities often believe parents are exaggerating the threats to their children. Meanwhile, parents feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously. Ultimately, this leads to total breakdown of the home-school relationship.
But parenting classes neither address this nor the financial poverty of many of the mothers who attend. "The lack of focus on social and economic problems facing mothers places the blame on the individual mother and her perceived failings," Peters says. "Parenting orders place the blame for their child's behaviour firmly on to mothers and stress their individual failings, while ignoring the failures of schools, communities and society."
Peters, E. "I Blame the Mother: educating parents and the gendered nature of parenting orders" (2012). Gender and Education, 24 (1), 119-30.
Dr Eleanor Peters, Edge Hill University.
Parenting orders were first introduced to England and Wales as part of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. This was the same act that established the anti-social behaviour order (Asbo).
A parenting order can be triggered when a child is given an Asbo or criminal conviction. Alternatively, they can be given when parents fail to secure regular attendance of a pupil at school, or when a child is excluded from school.
Since 2006, if school staff feel that parents are not cooperating with their efforts to regulate a child's behaviour or attendance, they can apply for a parenting order via the local authority. This is awarded according to a judge's discretion. Although the parenting order does not confer a criminal record, breach of its terms can, potentially, result in a prison sentence.
Under such an order, parents must participate in parenting support and education classes. The content of these classes is not specified in court. But government guidelines say that it is: "Designed to meet the individual needs of parents, so as to help them address their child's behaviour.
"This is not a punishment, but a positive way of bolstering parental responsibility and helping parents develop their skills, so that they can respond more effectively to their child's needs."