Fining ‘bad parents’ won’t solve any problems…

Schoolchildren need the help and support of their parents. No excuses.

Schoolchildren need the help and support of their parents. No excuses.

There’s been much discussion this week about the role and responsibilities of parents in relation to their children’s education.

I thought Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said some very sensible, and long overdue things, when interviewed by The Times.

He underlined the apathy that pervades sections of society and hampers the development of many children and young people whilst also acknowledging that the State has a role to play in requiring certain standards of parents.

However, Sir Michael also opened a can of worms in doing so and received criticism from the usual suspects – i.e. teaching unions and left wing commentators.

Ofsted’s chief is right when he advocates telling parents if they’re failing their children by not reading with them, not helping with homework or continually failing to turn up for parents’ evenings.

He’s also surely correct when he says that if parents love their children they should support them through school. After all, who doesn’t want their children to do well and aspire?

Where I disagree with the Ofsted chief is in his assertion that schools should start fining parents who don’t properly support their children.

I’m afraid that, to my mind, the issue of parental responsibility for a child’s education is simply too nuanced for such a simplistic approach.

Fining parents is the bureaucratic equivalent of a sledgehammer to crack a nut and I genuinely believe it would do more harm than good.

Let me start by saying that I’m sure my fellow columnist Tristram Hunt MP, the Shadow Education Secretary, will have an informed take on all of this.

I can, however, only come at the subject from the point of view of someone who was supported well through school by my own parents and who now takes an active role in the school life of my own children.

At home I, or my wife, read to our children nightly before bed. We help them with homework.

We even try our best to stimulate them through the TV programmes they are allowed to watch and the computer games they play.

Dull as it may seem, education is always the watch-word in our house. Tea-time is when we talk about the school day and Lois and Mina blurt out what they’ve learned that day (along with who fell over in the playground and what their friends ate for lunch).

My wife and I attend every parents’ evening – together when possible. We have also been on many school trips, helped out at school fairs and sports days and even run fund-raising discos.

As the Deputy Chair of Governors, I was present during the last Ofsted inspection and I write this column a few hours ahead of a two-hour, full governors’ meeting at little ’un’s school.

Bear in mind that I’m extremely lucky, however. I have a job which involves me working long, often anti-social hours but which is also relatively flexible.

This means I can attend most governors’ meetings and parents’ evenings. I can go on some school trips.

Most evenings I am there to read to my children before they go to sleep.

There are millions of parents just like me the length and breadth of the country who do the same.

However, we must also accept that there are many mums and dads across the UK who, for a variety of reasons, do not or cannot devote as much time to their children’s education as perhaps they, or society, would like.

Perhaps they are single parents with little or no support from relatives to enable them to take a more active role in school life. Or maybe they are families with no grandparents to help out with babysitting.

Perhaps they are shift workers or one of the growing number of people with multiple, low-paid jobs.

Perhaps they themselves had a poor experience at school and received little or no support from their own parents and therefore have no positive educational experiences to draw upon.

Perhaps they are embarrassed because they can’t read or write well or because their grasp of numbers is so poor that they are simply unable to help their own children.

Deprivation, poor levels of parental education, low aspirations and generations of worklessness have created large numbers of families for whom education simply isn’t a priority.

It’s shocking and deeply sad but we all see it every day. The latch-key kids, the children falling asleep in class because they’ve had so little sleep or because they missed a proper breakfast. The kids whose lunchboxes contain nothing but crisps, chocolate and sugary drinks.

The increasing number of children whose behaviour would have been called just plain ‘naughty’ when I was at school. The lack of respect from some children towards teaching staff.

There is no denying the apathy among some parents towards their children’s schooling and, whilst we may be able to explain it, it is inexcusable and unforgivable.

However, fining these people won’t make them homework geniuses, encourage them to go on school trips or suddenly make them better scholars themselves.

In fact, I would suggest that if schools were to start dishing out fines to ‘bad parents’ then this would simply lead to a further deterioration in the relationship between teachers and these mums and dads. That won’t help their children and surely they should be our priority here.

I’m not making excuses. This is the reality in Britain in 2014 and unless we help to motivate, rather than punish, such parents we are in danger of merely perpetuating the problems.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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Don’t take school league tables at face value

A thank you for attending the Excel Academy Awards night.

A thank you for attending the Excel Academy Awards night.

I felt very honoured when I was recently asked to say a few words at an awards evening for students at my former school held up at the Victoria Hall in Hanley.

It was an historic occasion as it marked the last prize-giving for young people at Holden Lane High which is currently being demolished to make way for the new buildings of the Excel Academy.

Sad as this may be for former pupils like me, I can’t help but be excited for the children who will benefit from the new state-of-the-art facilities – including my nephew.

There is no doubt that, at the age of 50, my old school is past its use-by date and, frankly, it was no longer possible to paper over the cracks.

Education has evolved beyond all recognition since I left Holden Lane in 1988 and the classrooms and corridors yours truly was once anonymous in are simply no longer fit for purpose.

I’m a firm believer that children learn better if they have decent facilities.

That, of course, is what the city council’s Building Schools for the Future programme is attempting to create: Stimulating learning environments for children of the digital age.

As the programme rolls out across Stoke-on-Trent it is clear that this investment in future generations is desperately needed.

Yesterday we learned that, by Ofsted’s measures at least, the Potteries is the third worst area in England in terms of secondary school education.

Just 34 per cent of pupils in the city attend a good or outstanding secondary school which means that the other 66 per cent are being failed by their schools and teachers.

Or does it?

Personally, I don’t believe that it’s as simple as saying two-thirds of the secondary schools in Stoke-on-Trent aren’t up to scratch.

Yes, of course, the standards of teaching and leadership at these schools is a key component in a child’s education.

But, speaking as a school governor myself, I know there are many factors which influence how a school performs in terms of Ofsted ratings and exam results.

I understand that we need benchmarks but many teachers will tell you that Ofsted inspections are rather one-dimensional in that they do not take into account external factors which influence how a school, its staff and its students are graded.

For example, a school in a leafy Cheshire suburb with healthy finances and a stable teaching staff simply cannot be compared fairly with its cash-strapped equivalent in a deprived area of Stoke-on-Trent.

By the same token a school with an active PTA and strong governing body clearly has a distinct advantage over a comparable school where apathy reigns and only a minority can even be bothered to turn out for parents’ evenings.

With the best will in the world, all teachers can do is create a quality learning environment for their charges.

If little Johnny hasn’t had any breakfast and is falling asleep in class because he sat up ’til 3am playing on his X-Box then clearly his teachers will have a struggle to engage with him.

It is churlish to simply blame schools or teachers, the council or even the current government for the fact that Stoke-on-Trent ranks so poorly in the latest standings.

Here in our city there are some terrific schools and many examples of teachers who are making a huge difference to the lives of young people in their care.

Take my old school – now the Excel Academy – which has jumped from ‘special measures’ to ‘good’ thanks to the vision and hard work of its teaching staff and governors.

But they can only do so much because, ultimately, educational attainment goes to the heart of complex societal problems.

The poor performance of schools goes hand-in-hand with levels of deprivation, worklessness and poor health.

In homes where adults who feel failed by the system themselves devote little or no time to helping their children with homework and consider the TV or games console a baby-sitting service then it is a given that youngsters will struggle academically.

In some secondary schools, the sad fact is that – for many teachers – simply keeping the peace and maintaining a reasonable level of discipline is almost a full-time job in itself, because the behaviour of certain pupils is so poor.

I recently gave a talk to a group of retired headteachers and they spoke passionately about what was wrong with schools today.

Some blamed poor standards of teaching.

Others said Ofsted inspectors weren’t necessarily qualified to run the rule over proper teachers.

Some blamed successive governments for constant tinkering with the curriculum.

Others argued that far too many students were going on to further education and that only the cream should go on to university.

The one thing these retired school leaders did agree on, however, was that none of them envied today’s teachers and they agreed that the job is more difficult in 2013 than it was five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel