Education – Parents Can Look, But They Can’t Touch

Last year our daughter joined the school eco-group, a committee of children who meet once a week after school and talked about environmental issues relevant to them at school. She decided she didn’t want to attend any more, so she told her teacher. So without checking with us the teacher let her quit and gave her place to another child. It’s not up to the school to provide childcare, but obviously our childcare was arranged around it and it left a hole. We had to complain to the headteacher to get her back in the group. Not a great lesson in sticking with your commitments, either.


The daughter of a friend of ours was learning an instrument at school, but decided she wanted to stop. So she stopped. And nobody told her parents, or asked if this was alright.

Another friend was concerned about some unpleasant behaviour towards her daughter from girls in her class. It’s a two-stream primary and when a girl in the other stream left, she asked if her daughter could move into the other class, in which were most of her friends. The school said no, and they’d look into it in the summer, six months later.

What these little stories indicate is this: when it comes to power over school education, parents have none.

Now I have to confess, in general I strongly believe that teachers are better judges of the educational needs of any given child than the parent. It’s not just disrespectful, it’s also flatly inaccurate to think that their years in university, training, probation and practice haven’t equipped them to do the job better than you or me. That’s a generalisation of course – I’ve met some teachers who I wouldn’t let run a tuck-shop, and who wouldn’t know a past participle if they found one in their soup. But as a rule of thumb, teacher knows better.

Also, there are plenty of children in Scotland whose parents are messing them up more than any school ever could.

But when did that translate into parents being kept in the dark and only included in their children’s education as and when the school sees fit?

I knew a teacher from New Zealand who came to work in Scotland and was shocked at how little communication there was with parents. Sure, parents got their newsletters telling them about upcoming trips and all the rest of it, but when it came to wee Jimmy’s education, the only communication with wee Jimmy’s parents were the two five-minute sessions at parents’ night. Unless, of course, wee Jimmy was setting fire to the toilets.

I’ve never been told how I can reach my children’s teachers. When I’ve had to tell them something it’s been by the note-in-the-bag routine, which, as communication methods go, is only one degree less risky than using carrier pigeons in occupied France. I don’t hear anything coming the other way, presumably because my children aren’t causing problems that require parental involvement. That’s pretty much all we are to most teachers – help with discipline, sign the homework book and if you’re really good a bit of reading to your kids before bedtime.

The Tory MP Rory Stewart made an interesting point in a Guardian interview recently:

“In a way, he says, ordinary Afghans are far more powerful than British citizens, because at least they feel they can have a role in one of the country’s 20,000 villages. ‘But in our situation we’re all powerless. I mean, we pretend we’re run by people. We’re not run by anybody. The secret of modern Britain is there is no power anywhere.’”

He’s right, because if an Afghani parent is unhappy about something going on in the school, they can take it to the old men with white beards (though maybe not so much the mums). Discussions are had locally, and decisions are made locally. And they don’t need the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006 to help them.

Meanwhile, here, we can go along to our Parent Council meetings and be told whatever the headteacher chooses to tell us. Getting an answer to questions is a different matter. How many Parent Councils have a mechanism for parents to just ask the headteacher questions, and make sure they are answered? A quick AOB while the janitor is rattling his keys doesn’t count.

Over the past couple of years I’ve asked for the school to come to the Parent Council with information on school meals, and to bring someone from the firm who have the contract to run the school building. Not happened, never going to happen. We’ll be told what the headteacher chooses to tell us, and that’s it.

So many parents stop bothering coming to the meetings: what’s the point. In fact many never start, because they don’t understand the power that they ought to have.

And where is the power in Scottish education? Not with parents, that much is clear. A lot of it is with teachers, who are autonomous in the classrooms to a remarkable degree. Some is with headteachers, but the extent to which they have to follow orders from the local authority is surprising. Council officials feel belittled by the Scottish Government, but really they get to do what they want. Sure, councillors might expect to be involved but in practice they only concern themselves with the hot-button issues like school closures. Hardly any are qualified for or capable of much more than nodding politely when the crunchy educational stuff comes before them, and the officials know it. And then there’s the Scottish Government, who can create as many laws as they like, but they can never expect to affect meaningfully the culture at class level.

Which leaves power over the decisions that really matter to you and your children with the school and the council.

So schools believe that it’s the role of parents to raise funds, to get involved in jobs like tidying up the school grounds and selling second-hand uniforms, to turn up for school shows and clap enthusiastically. But education? We can look, but we’re not allowed to touch.


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