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55. Prime Minister Tony Blair, preface to HM Government, Every Child Matters, Green Paper, Cm.

5860 (Norwich: HMSO, 2003).

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation One response by government to its growing unease about parental responsibility employed the rhetoric of ‘‘home-school partnership’’ but turned it into a tool with which to achieve a level of compliance by parents with the requirements of the school to which they were seeking admission for their child. The 1997 Education Act introduced the idea of a ‘‘home-school partnership document’’ that parents had to sign and submit to the LEA, initially proposed as a condition of having their child admitted to a school but this was subsequently moderated.56 The act states that A ‘‘partnership document’’ is a statement specifying — (a) the school’s aims and values;

(b) the responsibilities which the school intends to discharge in connection with the education of children admitted to the school; and (c) the parental responsibilities, that is the responsibilities which the parents of such children are expected to discharge in connection with the education of their children while they are registered pupils at the school; and ‘‘parental declaration’’ means a declaration to be signed by a parent seeking the admission of his child to the school by which he acknowledges and accepts the parental responsibilities specified in the partnership document.57 However, educational policy in England and Wales in the first decade of the twenty-first century has been colored by an increasingly strong perception of a more radical breakdown in parental responsibility and the need for more drastic forms of government intervention. Parental shortcomings have been blamed not only for educational failure but also for ‘‘the numbers of children who engage in offending or antisocial behaviour, suffer from ill health, or become teen-age parents,’’ to which is later added ‘‘substance abuse.’’58 At one level this has been a matter of parents themselves (including many for whom school provided a humiliating experience of failure) finding it difficult to cope with children who are deeply disaffected from school. Such cases are most clearly evidenced by student absenteeism (often in collusion with their parents) and, as Blair observes, parents’ condoning of antisocial and criminal behavior, but also, no doubt, by the parents’ own unwillingness to participate in school processes and events in the way that is expected of them.

Crozier suggests that ‘‘concern about the fragmentation or breakdown of the traditional family structure’’ was a primary driver of Conservative government policy throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but this did not change with the change of government in 1997: ‘‘New Labour have been critical of parents’ commitment to their children’s education in general and their ability to look after them properly and have laid (at least) partial blame at their door for children’s poor educational

56. Department for Education and Employment, Draft Guidance on Home School Agreement.

57. Education Act 1997, chap. 44, part III; and chap. 1, par. 13; http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1997/ ukpga 19970044 en 1.

58. HM Government, Every Child Matters, Green Paper, Cm. 5860, 5 and 6.

320 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 performance as well as poor behaviour.’’59 David Blunkett, then Secretary of State

for Education, was reported as saying at a conference in 1998:

When there is a problem it is all too often because parents claim not to have the time, because they have disengaged from their children’s education or because... they lack even the basic parenting skills.... So far from being a nanny state, we must become an enabling state, which ensures that parents and families have the backing when they need it.60 Among government’s response to this ‘‘crisis’’ (as it was referred to in the official rhetoric61 ) was a set of measures supported by a £25 million ‘‘parenting fund.’’ These measures have served three main purposes. One has been to seek to extend the range of responsibility that the school can take for the care of children beyond the normal scope of the school timetable. The government’s green paper Every Child Matters calls for ‘‘full service extended schools which are open beyond school hours to provide breakfast clubs and after school clubs and childcare, and have health and social care support services on site’’62 — in other words, for more universal implementation of the kind of developments introduced in pilot areas in 1998.63 A second set of initiatives has been aimed at encouraging the establishment of ‘‘targeted and specialist support for parents,’’ including what are essentially

training programs in parenting. But the third set of measures is more radical:

government has legislated to introduce ‘‘Parenting Orders’’ that are ‘‘to be used as a last resort where parents are condoning a child’s truancy, anti-social behaviour or offending.’’ These enable the government to bring persistently offending parents into the criminal justice system and in some cases to prison. The tenor of government’s approach to parenting can be gauged by the titles of the acts in which this legislation has been enshrined as well as the frequency of the extension of the powers that it allows. Parenting Orders were introduced in 2001 on the basis of the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998, and their use was extended by the Anti-social Behaviour Act of 2003, the Police and Justice Act of 2006, and the Education Inspections Act of 2006.64 While these measures have been designed to address cases that might be thought of in terms of inadequate parenting, lying behind them and providing the driving force for some far-reaching legislation have been much darker cases involving dreadful and depraved abuse of children by parents or those acting in ´ the parental role. Lord Laming’s report on the case of Victoria Climbie makes for

59. Crozier, Parents and Schools, 1 and 7.

60. John Carvel, ‘‘Labour Targets Lazy Parents,’’ Guardian, January 16, 1998.

61. See Gill Jagger and Caroline Wright, ‘‘Introduction: Changing Family Values,’’ in Changing Family Values, ed. Gill Jagger and Caroline Wright (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), 1–16.

62. HM Government, Every Child Matters, Green Paper, Cm. 5860, 7.

63. Department for Education and Employment, Homework Guidelines for Primary and Secondary Schools; and Department for Education and Employment, Extending Opportunity: A National Framework for Study Support.

64. See http://www.respect.gov.uk/members/article.aspx?id=7780.

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation sickening reading, but she was just one of a string of children listed in the report who have died at the hands of those entrusted with their care.65 These cases stood as an appalling indictment of the trust of parenthood, but also of the failure of the wider community and specifically of child-related government services to provide the children with the protection they were owed.

The public reaction to these cases (and indeed with increasing regularity the public reaction to any social failure) was to demand government action.66 The small number of dramatic and disturbing cases were, however, used to justify a wide-ranging platform of legislation affecting a much larger group of ‘‘failing’’ parents (some features of which have been noted previously) as well as what was presented as a failing child support system. These structural problems were addressed through radical changes in the organizational structure of the different child support agencies in the UK, including schools and health and social services in particular.67 One of the requirements of this legislation is for a joint report to be published every three years by the eight relevant inspectorates responsible for ‘‘Safeguarding Children.’’68 This is in itself significant for the theme of our symposium. The public — led by the popular press — does not seem to have any organizational resource capable of addressing even very specific (and relatively isolated) social problems other than to call for government intervention — which usually means hurriedly drafted legislation that everyone has later cause to regret.

Older established discourses continue to shape education in the UK. Even when introducing the consultation document on Every Child Matters: The Next Steps, Patricia Hodge, the Minister for Children, Young People, and Families, set out her position in the following terms: ‘‘First, we must sharpen the incentives and accountability for improving outcomes. We will, therefore, rationalize targets and ensure all services are judged on how they cohere to meet common objectives ´

65. Lord Laming, Report of the Victoria Climbie Inquiry (Norwich: HMSO, 2003).

66. We should note that there is a basis in popular opinion for increasing government intervention.

67. See HM Government, Every Child Matters, Green Paper, Cm. 5860; HM Government, Keeping ´ Children Safe: The Government’s Response to the Victoria Climbie Inquiry Report and the Joint Chief Inspectors’ Report ‘‘Safeguarding Children’’, Cm. 5861 (Norwich: HMSO, 2003); and HM Government, Children Act 2004 (Norwich: HMSO, 2004). There was an eerie echo of these events in Australia when Rex Wild and Patricia Anderson claimed in a government report that there was widespread child abuse in indigenous communities in Australia. The Australian government responded with a raft of legislation that allowed a radically new level of government and external intervention in the territories and lives of indigenous Australians. See Rex Wild and Patricia Anderson, Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle (Little Children Are Sacred): Report of the Northern Territory Board of Enquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse (Darwin, Australia: Government of the Northern Territory, 2007).

68. See Christine Gilbert, Safeguarding Children: Third Joint Chief Inspectors Report on Arrangements for Safeguarding Children (London: OfSTED, 2008), for the latest of these; see also www.safeguardingchildren.org.uk.

322 EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 60 Number 3 2010 through a new integrated inspection system.’’69 The discourse of performativity and accountability has, however, been joined by another, which explains some of the more recent developments. This is what one might refer to as the discourse of safeguarding (the language that permeates, for example, the 2004 Children Act), fed by what Michael Power so vividly described as a ‘‘pathologicality of distrust’’ that pervades almost every section of public life and every part of the contemporary educational policy agenda.70 The 2007 strategy document The Children’s Plan explains, for example, that Government... has a responsibility to put in place the right framework and systems for safeguarding children and young people, working in partnership with key national and local

organizations, and so we will:

• Publish the Staying Safe Action Plan in early 2008, responding to the Staying Safe consultation; and

• Ensure that schools and local authorities take a proportionate approach to health and safety to allow children to take risks while staying safe.71 In a similar vein, the rationale for a 2009 review of the practice of homeschooling is introduced as follows: ‘‘the review of home education... has been triggered by a range of issues and representations, not least being the quite proper concern to ensure that systems for keeping children safe and ensuring that they receive a suitable education are as robust as possible.’’72 The attitudes of mind that have been associated with these developments have become pervasive, however. They have been fed by a fear of being sued (the government and the corporate world have of course faced large class actions in recent years) but also by a kind of vacuum of social responsibility — and an increasing sense that, whatever the problem, only government has the capacity to address it. The result is that the law book gets constantly expanded to deal with every matter that raises public concern: a wider and wider range of behaviors become criminalized and more and more people end up in the already obscenely congested jails.73 Whether the ‘‘social vacuum’’ is real or imagined is not clear. A report produced by the Von Hugel Institute pointed, for example, to the massive contribution to social welfare made by the churches through all sorts of voluntary and charitable activity, but also to government’s ignorance of this resource and capacity for social care and community development.74

69. Department for Children, Schools, and Families, Every Child Matters: The Next Steps (Norwich:

HMSO, 2004), 3.

70. Michael Power, The Audit Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).

71. Department for Children, Schools, and Families, The Children’s Plan, 8.

72. Badman, Report to the Secretary of State on the Review of Elective Home Education, par. 1.4.

73. The UK has more criminal offenses on its statute books than any other country in Europe and a larger portion of its population in jail than any country other than Turkey.

74. Francis Davis, Elizabeth Paulhus, and Andrew Bradstock, Moral But No Compass: Government, Church, and the Future of Welfare (London: Matthew James, 2008).

Bridges Government’s Construction of the Parent-School Relation We have seen, then, successively over this period a failure in the confidence that government had in schools, hospitals, the police, and indeed their own civil servants; a failure of confidence in the professionalism of teachers, doctors, and others; a failure of confidence in social services; and a perceived need to compensate for parents in whom we no longer have confidence. Thank goodness that, on its own view anyway, we can have complete confidence in our government to make everything safe and right and good!


Once you have or create a state education system — and especially if the state is effectively the first and major provider of education — it is difficult to avoid a level of government management of the terms of the relation between parents and schools.

Over the period I have been discussing in this essay, the rationale for the terms that governments of different political persuasions have laid down have been primarily framed by concerns for

1. Equity — involving support for parents, the education and management of parents, and ultimately the punishment of inadequate parents as selectively applicable measures to engage (with) parents in raising the achievements of and extending opportunities for children who would otherwise be disadvantaged.

2. Raising levels of achievement (a concern that became framed as the discourse of performativity) — using ‘‘parent support,’’ ‘‘parent partnership,’’ ‘‘parent participation,’’ ‘‘parent power,’’ and ‘‘parent choice’’ as generally applicable mechanisms through which to drive up school and student achievement;

3. Safeguarding — protecting children from, at one end of the scale, abusive parents through to parents who in the view of the officers of the state are simply not providing what in their terms is an adequate or suitable education.

I have been critical of some of the actual interventions of government in this period and also of some of the mechanisms they have chosen. This is primarily because they seem to have shown less than appropriate respect for the role and responsibility of parents for their children’s education — one that I believe parents in general take seriously — but also because, having been captured by the competitive ethos of the market, they have missed opportunities to build collaborative relations between schools and parents in local communities and between clusters of schools and their local communities.

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