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«GOVERNMENT’S CONSTRUCTION OF THE RELATION BETWEEN PARENTS AND SCHOOLS IN THE UPBRINGING OF CHILDREN IN ENGLAND: 1963–2009 David Bridges Faculty of ...»

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10. Central Advisory Council for Education, Children and Their Primary Schools [Plowden Report], pars. 102–103.

11. This system was officially recommended in the 1965 government circular 10/65.

12. Charles Bailey and David Bridges, Mixed Ability Grouping: A Philosophical Perspective (London:

George Allen and Unwin, 1983).

13. Robin Auld, William Tyndale Junior and Infant Schools Public Enquiry: A Report to the ILEA (London: Inner London Education Authority, 1976).

304 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 were failing educationally, it was the fault not of the school but of economically and culturally disadvantaged parents (or so went the fashionable analysis). The remedy lay in their social and economic improvement and in their being assisted by schools and others in understanding better how to provide home conditions (encouragement, books, conversation, a place to study quietly) better suited to the educational requirements of the schools. This was parental enablement of a kind, but of a kind that reminded them firmly of their subordinate position in the educational process. The observation of inequalities in the conditions that might contribute to school achievement was, nevertheless, and has remained a principled and pragmatic basis for a number of government interventions designed to ‘‘remedy’’ what might in terms of one political ideology be perceived as structural socioeconomic inequalities or, in terms of another, parental inadequacies.

In some ways, perhaps, the most important sequences of legislation and government provision in this effort to counter social inequalities have been those addressed at the preschool years, especially the development of nursery and playgroup provision — a program recommended by Plowden and initiated by a 1972 white paper, and that has been sustained through most of the period covered in this essay. This has carried wider economic benefits in terms of allowing more women in particular to return to work and benefits, thus promoting gender equality. At the same time, this has been achieved by reducing the role of parents in the upbringing of their children in favor in particular of government-provided nursery care, but also private sector facilities. The role of government in early childhood education has been further extended by the prescription of what is effectively a curriculum in the form of attainment targets that preschool children are expected to achieve before proceeding to primary school, assessment of five-year-olds, and a national system of inspection to government-prescribed standards that applies both to nursery schools and playgroups.

The problem is that, given an analysis of the educational disadvantage experienced by some children in terms of the inadequacy of parental support at home, it is always tempting to offer government interventions that further remove the children from the influence of the home. In the late 1990s, for example, when Tony Blair came to power, he introduced ‘‘breakfast clubs’’ in schools to ensure that children started the day with a solid breakfast and were in school on time and ‘‘homework clubs’’ in primary and secondary schools linked to national homework guidelines to enable children to do their homework in a supportive environment without interruption14 — ‘‘equalizing’’ initiatives, perhaps, but ones that in a sense further diminish the role and responsibility of parents in relation to the school and the state.

14. Department for Education and Employment, Homework Guidelines for Primary and Secondary

Schools (London: DFEE, 1998); and Department for Education and Employment, Extending Opportunity:

A National Framework for Study Support (London: DFEE, 1998).

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation From Parental Support to the Discourse of Partnership The notion that children’s educational failure might be blamed on parents’ failure to provide the right kind of home support for their children is, not unnaturally, attractive to schools, which are thus exempted from at least some proportion of the blame for such failure. That parents should support the work of schools in a variety of ways was perhaps even more attractive.

Indeed the kind of social and political changes that took place in the 1970s and 1980s reinforced teachers’ growing realization that they needed parental support on a variety of fronts: in maintaining discipline and order among a school population less and less inhibited by regard for the traditional authority of teachers; in counteracting the mounting stridency of public criticism of schools from politicians and the press; and in supplementing public funding for schools in a context of decaying facilities and rising expectations for the provision of expensive new equipment such as computers and video cameras. Some schools, threatened with closure as a result of shifting populations, falling enrollment, and the need for local authority economies, came to owe their very survival to parental support. Local politicians quickly came to realize that local council seats could be won or lost on the issue of school closure, such was the voting power of the parental lobby. In a hung council such as Cambridgeshire between 1985 and 1989, it became virtually impossible for the local education authority (LEA) to close a school, whatever the economic and demographic case for doing so. Any party threatening to close one would be faced by two others competing for the local political credit for keeping it open.





Headteachers have often talked with satisfaction and comfort about having ‘‘supportive parents’’ or with frustration about the absence of such support.

But what more precisely are the ingredients of such support? Characteristically,

perhaps they include the following:

• Parents ensure, as far as this is within their domain, that students act in accordance with school requirements, for example, with respect to dress, attendance, and homework.

• Parents support the school in maintaining its code of behavior and, more particularly, in the event that it needs to take action to enforce that code in the case of a reluctant or ‘‘disruptive’’ child.

• Parents support school events, including concerts, sports days, school open houses, and the like.

• Parents contribute to school fundraising activity either directly (by donating to the school fund, for instance) or indirectly through help at a rummage sale or the sale of raffle tickets.

• Parents play a more overtly political role in defending the school or the school’s interests in the local community, acting perhaps as a pressure group on the local council or the local Member of Parliament.

306 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 A number of these principles were later enshrined in the so-called ‘‘HomeSchool Partnership Document’’ that parents wishing to register their children at a school had to sign.15 It was these expectations — especially powerful in the hands of headteachers of the more desirable schools — that led Gill Crozier to talk of the importance of ‘‘getting the right parents’’: ‘‘Unlike other consumers, the type of parent consumer is important. If parents play a key role in ensuring the smooth running of our diverse education system, and indeed to operate as responsible citizens, then their ‘normalisation’ must be assured.’’16 All the more, she might have added, if your school’s performance in the achievement rankings is going to depend on not just on your students’ individual efforts but the driving force behind them of their parents.

The expectation that schools should receive the unreserved support of parents in the kind of terms set out here cannot pass, and of course has not passed, without question. In what circumstances should parents feel an obligation, for example, to support a code of dress or behavior or forms of disciplinary action espoused by the school? Is such an obligation owed automatically to a school? Should parents who are opposed in principle to, say, competitive sports or to a school’s choice of a play that they hold to be offensive nevertheless feel an obligation to support these events? Are parents who do not agree with the school’s code of dress bound nevertheless to oblige their children to conform?

In the normal course of things one would surely expect any such obligation to be affected by, for example, whether or not the parents had any choice in the matter of which school their child should attend; whether or not the values implicit in the school codes were compatible with those of the parents; and whether or not parents were given the opportunity to contribute through some reasonable process of consultation or decision making to the code of conduct that they are now invited to support.

If parents have no choice and no part in the matter, then it is difficult to see how they could be held to feel any moral obligation to support the school, though they might choose to do so prudentially, out of sheer expediency, reckoning that doing so generally serves the best interests of their child.

If parents have a reasonable choice of schools that represent a variety of social values and codes, including ones to which they are basically sympathetic, then it could be argued that in choosing a particular school, they are entering open-eyed into a relation that entails an obligation of support. In practice, of course, the number of parents for whom such choice is genuinely available is negligible.

Similarly, if parents become associated with a school that offers them a serious opportunity to participate in the determination or revision of its ‘‘educational

15. Department for Education and Employment, Draft Guidance on Home School Agreement (London:

DFEE, 1998).

16. Gill Crozier, Parents and Schools: Partners or Protagonists? (Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books, 2000), 9.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation mission,’’ of its guiding values and social code, then there is a clear case for suggesting that parents incur an obligation to support what was thus determined.

As Pamela Munn points out, however, while parents are generally expected to uphold school values, ‘‘parental involvement in identifying the values which the school will embody is rare.’’17 Even where such opportunity is provided, however,

it still constitutes no more than a clear case for a parental obligation to support:

there is no shortage of argument to explain why participation in fully democratic processes (let alone the quasi-democratic processes that are more typical of school governance even today) might be compatible with disobedience to the decisions that are the outcome of those processes.18 Nevertheless, schools themselves have become more conscious that when parental support is needed more than ever before, active support from parents is not something that will come automatically: it needs to be cultivated; it needs to be earned; it needs to be part of a richer pattern of mutual obligation and support.

Hence, the notion of a ‘‘partnership’’ between parents and schools.

Partnership as Parent Power The Plowden Report had already employed the language of partnership in 1967 — ‘‘one of the essentials for educational advance is a closer partnership between the two parties (parents and teachers) to every child’s education’’19 — and no doubt there are considerably earlier references, but the notion really came into its own, with an added note of political realism, with the publication of the Taylor Committee Report in 1977 under the title A New Partnership for Our Schools.

The Taylor Report was in my view a wise and carefully balanced document, which deserved more government support than it was in the end to receive.20 It contained in its argument and recommendations many, if not all, of the key ingredients of what I would argue constitutes a proper parent-school partnership.

First, the report acknowledged the importance of parental support for the school. Taylor recognized the stresses that schools were under and argued, ‘‘it is vital, therefore, that teachers have the support of people outside the school in the increasingly difficult task of attaining those (educational) objectives and dealing with those stresses’’ (TR, par. 6.14). The report further emphasized the committee’s ‘‘wish to produce a structure within which every parent will have a role in supporting the school and increasing its effectiveness’’ (TR, par. 5.27).

Second, the report recognized that parents are not always as forthcoming with that support as schools would like, but pointed out that schools could do more to help parents understand what they are doing, to address parental confusion, and actively to enlist their support: ‘‘We believe that better forms of communication

17. Pamela Munn, ed., Parents and Schools (London: Routledge, 1993), 1.

18. See, for example, Peter Singer, Democracy and Disobedience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).

19. Central Advisory Council for Education, Children and Their Primary Schools [Plowden Report], par. 102.

20. Its recommendations only ever emerged in a very diluted form in legislation.

308 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 will, in time, increase parents’ sense of commitment to their child’s school’’ (TR, par. 5.27).

Thus far the Taylor Committee was on fairly well-trodden ground, but it entered more controversial territory as it developed the next step in the argument and a third element of the notion of partnership: a more equal distribution of power in the relation between parents and school.

‘‘If ordinary people do not, as some teachers suggest, understand what schools are trying to do,’’ argued Taylor, ‘‘it is in part because they have traditionally not taken an active part in determining the educational policy of the schools’’ (TR, par. 6.14). Joan Sallis, a member of the committee, expressed the full equation succinctly in the book she published shortly after the report came out: ‘‘The case is essentially that the job schools now have to do cannot be done adequately without more support from parents and the community in general. Support means consent, consent means understanding; true understanding can only come from responsibility.’’21 The Taylor Committee rejected the case put to them by, for example, the Assistant Masters’ Association that, in their own terms, the curriculum ‘‘best falls within the competence of professionally trained, experienced and practising teachers’’ (TR, par. 6.13). ‘‘We do not believe,’’ said Taylor, ‘‘that these arguments justify regarding the curriculum at school level as the responsibility solely of the teachers nor are we convinced that it is right for teachers to carry this responsibility alone’’ (TR, par. 6.14).

The committee went on to argue for an increase in the power of parents in relation to schools as a condition for the development of a real partnership. Parents would have stronger direct representation on governing bodies, and governing bodies should have their power extended to include responsibility ‘‘for setting the aims of the school, for considering the means by which they are pursued, for keeping under review the school’s progress towards them, and for deciding upon action to facilitate such progress’’ (TR, par. 6.23).

These measures, which the report recognized would only involve directly a small minority of parents, sat alongside other recommendations — a fourth ingredient of the new partnership — concerned with encouraging parents’ organizations and giving them access to school facilities (TR, pars. 5.20–5.23) and with ensuring that adequate arrangements are made ‘‘to inform parents, to involve them in their children’s progress and welfare, to enlist their support, and to ensure their access to the school and a teacher by reasonable arrangement’’ (TR, par.

5.28.). Unfortunately, however, these last relatively modest and commonsensical recommendations, which had practical bearing on relations with all parents, tended to get overshadowed by the reaction (positive and negative) to the recommendations that presaged the development of parent power, or at least power for a minority of parent activists.



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