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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Beating voter apathy more important than who won this time around

Ballot boxes ready for emptying.

Ballot boxes ready for emptying.

I can’t help but feel local elections are akin to a re-shuffling of the deck chairs on the S.S. Titanic.

They actually do little more than divert our attention away from the iceberg looming up on the Starboard side.

As vital as they are to local democracy, it is hard for me to get too excited beyond a private smile when someone I know to be a good councillor (irrespective of their political affiliations) is re-elected.

At least then I can rest assured that, in their particular ward, local people will have a voice and that voice will come from someone who cares and who isn’t just trying to climb the greasy pole.

Of course, it isn’t just me who struggles to muster much interest in local elections. It’s the majority of voters too.

The turnout across Staffordshire varied from the anomaly that is Cheslyn Hay, Essington and Great Wyrley (52 per cent) down to a paltry 21 per cent in Keele, Knutton and Silverdale where Labour’s bright young thing Gareth Snell met his Waterloo.

I guess the average turnout was around 30 per cent.

Simply put: The majority of the electorate are even less bothered about voting in these polls than they are at General Election time.

For me, this apathy is by far the greatest threat to our democracy and the biggest issue facing politicians and parties who, by the very nature of the system, live for short-term gain.

The word you often hear after an election is that parties need to ‘re-engage’ with the electorate.

Indeed Labour MP Tristram Hunt used it yesterday in his column in The Sentinel.

The word re-engage is as close as you’ll ever get to an apology from your MP, a local party leader, the Prime Minister or his Right Honourable ‘Friend’ on the other side of the Despatch Box.

It covers a multitude of sins, stops politicians from having to admit they’ve made any mistakes, and is their way of explaining away the fact that election turnouts have been falling in the UK since the early 1950s.

Until we get a grip of this by impressing upon primary and secondary school children the importance of casting a vote, come hell or high water, then I’m afraid apathy will continue to reign.

Here in Staffordshire, as expected all parties were trying to find crumbs of comfort in the election result which actually meant very little changed.

The Conservatives held on to control of the authority with the slimmest of minorities while Labour enjoyed the typical resurgence of a party in opposition during the mid-term of a government taking unpopular decisions.

The fact is many people do find it impossible to divorce national politics from local politics and thus many a hard-working ward councillor pays the price for what his or her party has or hasn’t been doing at Westminster.

As a case in point in our county, poor Lib Dem councillors vanished off the political map – paying the price for their counterparts in the House of Commons selling their souls to the Coalition dream.

Meanwhile Ukip came from nowhere to grab a quite remarkable 24 per cent of the vote (broadly in line with the national picture) – but actually only won two seats as opposed to four the last time around.

It would be very easy to dismiss Ukip as the recipient of this year’s protest vote or to try to besmirch the party, as some leading politicians have done, as a haven for fools and extremists.

Yes, there is an element of protest voting going on as regards Ukip – just as there was when the BNP gained a foothold in Stoke-on-Trent.

But I think the message from the electorate is more nuanced than simply being a case of ‘anything other than red or blue at the moment’.

At a time of austerity and deep economic uncertainty, I think many people are tired of the spin, point-scoring and yah-boo politics which is the bread and butter of mainstream parties.

I also believe that Ukip has touched a chord with those who are fed up of the Tories, Labour and the Lib-Dems skirting around the important issues of Europe and immigration.

Not so long ago Ukip and its rather eccentric leader were seen as little more than a fringe group.
But last week almost a quarter of those who could be bothered to vote chose to support Ukip.

That’s a lot of votes.

Thus one can understand the conviction of Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s that his party isn’t “just some little pressure group that will go away if someone in No 10 starts singing the same song”.

If nothing else perhaps Ukip’s populist success will force the mainstream parties to ‘re-engage’ with the public on the issues that really matter to them.

Oops, there’s that word again.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday