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IN ENGLAND: 1963–2009

David Bridges

Faculty of Education

University of East Anglia and University of Cambridge

Abstract. In this essay David Bridges argues that since most families choose to realize their

responsibility for the major part of their children’s education through state schools, then the way in which the state constructs parents’ relation with these schools is one of its primary levers on parenting itself. Bridges then examines the way in which parent-school relations have been defined in England through government and quasi-government interventions over the last forty-five years, tracing these through an awakening interest in the relation between social class and unequal school success in the 1960s, passing through the discourse of accountability in the 1970s, marketization in the 1980s and 1990s, performativity extending from this period into the first decade of the twenty-first century, and, most recently, more direct interventions into parenting itself and the regulation of school relations with parents in the interests of safeguarding children. These have not, however, been entirely discrete policy themes, and the positive and pragmatic employment of the discourse of partnership has run throughout this period, albeit with different points of emphasis on the precise terms of such partnership.

Introduction In early childhood in particular we normally recognize the child’s parents as having particular duties and rights in relation to the upbringing of ‘‘their’’ child (procreation providing, then, some basis for responsibility and even proprietorship).

In the context of the United Kingdom and elsewhere,1 it has been possible to interpret this responsibility very extensively, since the 1944 Education Act made provision for children to be educated in a school or ‘‘otherwise’’ — including in the family.2 A small minority of parents continue to choose to exercise this right to ‘‘education otherwise,’’ though the state has played an increasing part in ensuring that certain national curricular and other requirements are met in the course of this provision, and, as we shall see toward the end of this essay, it has recently lurched quite dramatically toward distrust of homeschooling and introduced a wide range of new controls on this alternative.3

1. Of the four countries of the United Kingdom, Scotland and Northern Ireland have almost entirely independent administrations, and Wales one that is increasingly independent. While some of the policies described in this essay have been applied outside England at different stages during the course of the forty years covered here, it is more accurate to relate my account simply to this one part of the UK.

2. The 1996 Education Act reiterated this principle in a slightly updated form: ‘‘The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable — (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.’’ Education Act 1996, par. 7; http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1996/ukpga 19960056 en 2#pt, 1-ch1-pb3-l1g7.

3. See James C. Conroy, ‘‘The State, Parenting, and the Populist Energies of Anxiety,’’ in this volume.

–  –  –

But, of course, most parents (93 percent in the UK) exercise a major part of their educational responsibility by availing themselves of the services of professional educators, teachers, provided through a state system of school provision, with a minority of parents choosing private schooling. First, then, a state-managed system of public schooling takes over from parents the major responsibility for the education of their children, albeit, in general, with their consent. Next, it regulates, for example, how much say these parents may have in the conduct of that education; how much information they may receive about the schools that are substituting for their educational role; how much choice they have in relation to which school their child will attend; how much and what sort of information they will receive about the work of the school and about their child’s progress;

and what kind of relation they will develop with the teachers who have taken on this role. This is why I suggest that the government’s construction of the relation between parents and the schools that function under its authority and regulation represents one of the most significant ways in which it intervenes in parenting.

A 2009 report proposing new regulation of homeschooling began by acknowledging that ‘‘parents are the prime educators within or outside of a schooling system’’ and echoed the first principle declared in The Children’s Plan of the UK Department for Children, Schools, and Families that ‘‘government does not bring up children — parents do.’’4 This was accompanied, however, with a big ‘‘but’’ signaled by a prefatory quotation from Isaiah Berlin: ‘‘the need to sacrifice some ultimate values to others turns out to be a permanent characteristic of the human predicament.’’5 In a sense this essay is a chronicle of these sacrifices, or, more positively, an affirmation of some alternative principles.

My purpose here is to examine the ingredients of educational and wider political policy that have gone into the framing of government’s construction of the relations between schools and parents — and hence its framing of parenting itself — over the last forty years. The sources I have relied upon in undertaking this examination are primarily (1) government white papers (the usual preliminary to legislation in the UK) and Acts of Parliament, (2) statements by government ministers, and (3) reports by government-sponsored committees of inquiry (even if government has not uniformly adopted their recommendations). I should acknowledge that since this period of history coincides with the period of my own professional engagement with education (including a considerable body of

4. Graham Badman, Report to the Secretary of State on the Review of Elective Home Education (London: HMSO, 2009); and Department for Children, Schools, and Families, The Children’s Plan:

Building Brighter Futures (Norwich: HMSO, 2007), 5.

5. Department for Children, Schools, and Families, The Children’s Plan, preface.

DAVID BRIDGES is Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, 184 Hills

Rd., Cambridge, CB2 8PQ, UK, and Emeritus Professor at the University of East Anglia, UK; e-mail:

d.bridges@uea.ac.uk. His primary areas of scholarship include philosophy of education, philosophy and educational research, research quality assessment, and higher education.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation work on parent-school relations6 and fourteen years as a school governor) a certain biographical perspective will inevitably intrude.

There is a certain chronological sequence to these different ingredients of policy (which I shall follow approximately), beginning with an awakening interest in the relation between social class and unequal school success in the 1960s;

passing through the discourse of accountability in the seventies, marketization in the Margaret Thatcher and John Major years of the 1980s and 1990s, performativity extending from this period into the Tony Blair years and the first decade of the twenty-first century; and, most recently — and prompted by several highly publicized and shameful cases of child abuse and, for example, high rates of teenage pregnancy — more direct interventions into parenting itself and the regulation of school relations with parents in the interests of safeguarding children. These have not however been entirely discrete policy themes, and the positive and pragmatic employment of the discourse of partnership has run throughout this period, albeit with different points of emphasis on the precise terms of such partnership. So too has the theme of parental inadequacy as a legitimation of further government intervention. Let me explore some of these policy themes and their implications for the construction of the role of parents in the education of their children in more detail.

Parents and Schools: The Great Divide In a sense we need to start from the position that was very clearly demarcated in the 1950s and into the 1960s, in which parental responsibility stopped and school responsibility started at the school gates. I know that people sometimes regard these stories as apocryphal, but the local infants school (for children ages five to seven) that my own children attended (even in the late 1970s) had a white line painted outside the school gate and a notice that warned ‘‘No parents beyond this point.’’ This was not just about avoiding crowded entrance halls, it was a reminder that at this point the school took over and that you had better leave them to their work. An annual art exhibition, concert and sports day and an opportunity once a year to meet your child’s classroom teacher (finally reaching the head of a line that wound through the classroom where the children were pinned to their desks, as I recall, and in full hearing of the rest of those in line) served to provide what in the school’s view was all the communication that was needed. It is no surprise that the Plowden Report, for example, was already stating in 1967 that while there was little evidence among parents of dissatisfaction with schools, ‘‘about half of the parents said they would have liked to be told more about how their children were getting on at school. Almost a third thought that the teachers should have asked them more about their children.’’7

6. This essay draws in places on my earlier writing, in particular, on David Bridges, ‘‘Parents: Customers

or Partners?’’ in Education in the Market Place, ed. David Bridges and Terence H. McLaughlin (London:

Falmer Press, 1994).

7. Central Advisory Council for Education, Children and Their Primary Schools: The Report of the Plowden Committee, vol. 1 (London: HMSO, 1967), par. 106.

302 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 One might have expected some radical changes in this structure as many primary schools in the UK became captured by the language (if not a great deal of the substance) of ‘‘progressive’’ or ‘‘child-centered’’ education in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the no doubt unintended, but foolishly disregarded, consequences of the many innovative and creative educational developments in this period was, if anything, an increasing sense of puzzlement and disenfranchisement among parents in relation to the education of their children. It was not that parents had previously had any very intimate or active involvement with schools, but there were at least, until this period, some continuities with their own school experience. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, a number of developments in curriculum, in teaching approaches, in classroom organization, and in the language used to describe all these combined to reinforce parents’ sense of distance and helplessness. They did not even understand the mathematics that their primary children were engaged with, nor the new approaches to reading; what on earth is an ‘‘integrated day’’ or an ‘‘integrated classroom,’’ and why are they now building schools without walls in which children seem to be wandering around at will in a cacophony of noise? What has happened to the ‘‘discipline’’ of the old days?

Parents found themselves puzzled and impotent bystanders to the education that their children were receiving. Ten years after Plowden, the Taylor Report was still warning that ‘‘modern developments in curriculum theory and practice have puzzled and worried many people not involved in school education.’’8 It is not obvious that this sort of relation between parents and schools (or, more accurately perhaps, the absence of a relation) was strictly a matter of government policy or contrivance. Rather it fit within a wider pattern of deferential relations between ordinary people and the educated elite that constituted the professional membership in medicine, law, and for the most part the church. Even if teaching could claim only semiprofessional status there was, nevertheless a widespread acquiescence in the belief that there was a body of academic and professional knowledge involved that was possessed by teachers but not generally at the disposal of parents.

Considerations of Equity and the Equalization of Opportunity The first government interventions in this relation during this period did not so much challenge the authority of teachers, but recognized the limits of what they could achieve in the face of deep-seated social inequalities and educational disadvantage. At this time — and to some degree ever since — the principle of equity was one of the primary drivers for government intervention aimed at parenting in the parent-school relation. The Labour administrations of this period were persuaded by the sociological evidence that the system was operating to reinforce social class inequalities and that children from lower-class backgrounds needed additional support if they were to have equal

8. Department of Education and Science, A New Partnership for Our Schools: Report of the Taylor Committee (London: HMSO, 1977), par. 6.18. This work will be cited in the text as TR for all subsequent references.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation opportunities to succeed through the school system. Both the landmark and highly influential reports on schooling published in the 1960s — the Newsom and Plowden Reports — recognized the importance of the parental contribution to children’s development and the impact of home circumstances on school achievement. John Newsom, chair of the committee that prepared this 1963 report, quotes headteachers’ concerns regarding the impact of parental neglect on the school performance of some pupils: ‘‘as one examines the background of these pupils, descending from the more able to the less able, the more one finds them being left to their own devices... parents are often over-generous with material things, and under-generous in giving their time to their children.’’9 Bridget Plowden observed, in similar terms, that ‘‘a strengthening of parental encouragement may produce better performance in school, and thus stimulate the parents to encourage more; or discouragement in the home may initiate a vicious downward circle.’’10 These same sentiments could easily have come out of a twenty-first-century analysis of inadequate ‘‘parenting.’’ This analysis led to increased skepticism about the use of tests on children aged 11 and over to select for a differentiated system of schooling (on the grounds that this simply reinforced existing social inequalities) and the development steadily over almost the whole country of a system of unselective comprehensive schools.11 Within these same schools it led by extension to critical examination of the practice of tracking children on the basis of ability and the introduction (patchily) of ‘‘mixed ability teaching.’’12 It also led to the establishment of educational priority areas (the most urgent priority in the eyes of Plowden) in which government invested additional resources as a form of positive discrimination in schools in socially deprived areas.

These changes in themselves did not materially affect the relation between parents and schools, except that the introduction of comprehensive schooling did reinforce the idea of a common community school and led to some strengthening of the links between school and community — most clearly manifested in, for example, the Leicestershire Community Colleges and the Cambridgeshire Village College structure.

There was, however, little doubt about where authority in educational matters lay, at least until the watershed of the William Tyndale affair, which appeared to present a picture of a radicalized state school imploding into chaos.13 If children

9. Central Advisory Council for Education, Half Our Future [The Newsome Report] (London: Stationery Office Books, 1963), par. 181.

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