Like all parents, I want the best for my children. When they’re unhappy, I’m unhappy. When they suffer injustice, I’m incensed. When their school makes a decision I disagree with, my first reaction is to get in touch and point out where they’ve gone wrong and what they should do about it.
When she was in primary school, my eldest daughter had a teacher who believed in the power of collective punishment, and, as a well-behaved, hard-working pupil she was made to suffer for the poor behaviour of some of the other children in her class. This struck both her and me as completely unfair.
My youngest daughter had a teacher who set a weekly spelling test. Spelling has been a particular problem for her – we now think this was probably caused by, at least in part, a case of undiagnosed glue ear when she was in Year 1. Despite making a real effort to learn her spelling list each week, she would often struggle to get more than half of the spellings correct in the test. The fact that she found this embarrassing was bad enough, but then her teacher started keeping children who failed to get at least half the spelling right in at break time for some extra practice. This struck both her and me as completely unfair.
In both cases, we thought long and hard about whether to contact the teachers in question and express our concerns. In the end, we decided to let the collective punishment go as we worried that raising it would do more to undermine the teacher than not. In the second case we decided the problem was too pressing not to say how we felt. Although we took pains to do this politely and proportionately, I’m sure it probably came as an unwelcome intrusion to the teacher in question. But, we explained that our daughter worked hard to learn her weekly list of spellings and that punishing her for not being very good at something didn’t really seem the right way to solve the problem. We agreed that in the future our daughter would be allowed to go to break even if she didn’t achieve the pass mark. This led to break time punishments for poor spelling being abandoned for all children.
Did we do the right thing? It’s hard to tell. As far as our daughter’s feelings went, we think we probably did, but in prioritising our own narrow self-interest were we perhaps guilty of undermining the school? This is something I’ve really struggled with and, since they’ve moved on to secondary school, we’ve made the decision, as parents, that whenever possible we will support the school rather than simply fighting for our daughters’ preferment. Sometimes they complain about the attitude or practices of one teacher or another, but we’re clear that unless there is a major injustice we will not support these complaints. This seems like the right thing to do.
Today I came across this story from BBC South East:
Kent head says parents undermine teachers’ attempts at discipline. pic.twitter.com/IRDqBhmWrs
— BBC South East (@bbcsoutheast) May 12, 2017
Louise McGowan, headteacher of Walderslade Girls’ School in Kent, raise some very important points. She says that about 5% of the 900 girls at her school regularly flout school rules. Here’s an extract from a letter she sent home to parents:
Part of the problem is, McGowan explains, cause by children complaining to their parents and those parents them refusing to support the school’s efforts to maintain discipline. She is quoted as saying that, “The relationship and trust between schools and parents is breaking down. By screaming at teachers, parents are not instilling respect or right from wrong in their own children.” I know nothing about the context or challenges of Walderslade Girls’ School but these are experiences that will chime with most teachers in most schools. The increasing occurrence of parents supporting badly behaved children over their teachers is summed up by this popular internet meme:
McGowan is reported as saying, “A good education goes hand in hand with discipline, you need both in adulthood”. I agree. Self-discipline, or self-control – the ability to control our emotions – is an important factor in later success, and is a trait schools should certainly try to instil in their students but, more importantly I think, without order and discipline, the classroom climate is unlikely to be one in which students can learn effectively. Without good behaviour nothing else is likely to work well, but with good behaviour, almost anything becomes possible.
As a parent I support my children’s school right not to accept excuses for bad behaviour. Of course, as I’ve argued before, there are usually reasons for such behaviour and some of these reasons may even be good one, but these reasons, heartbreaking though they may be, are not an excuse to break the rules. McGowan says there have been cases where “parents actively fought on behalf of the child against the school, even when their child was in breach of the behaviour policy”. There is never an excuse for this. If we accept children’s, or parents’, excuses then we tolerate a worse educational experience for everyone. If instead we take account of children’s, and parents’ reasons and work with them to take responsibility for these reasons not to be used as excuses, then the experience of everyone involved in education – children, parents and teachers – ought to improve.
Sometimes teachers and school leaders will make mistakes. Sometimes, through thoughtless or lack of information, school will make decisions which parents feel to be wrong. No one is perfect – certainly no parent or child – and, of course, schools should be held to account for their judgements. But how parents go about doing this matters. Our default should be to support the school until we have the full information. Everyone, teachers and parents, should support Louise McGowan in her stand against parents undermining schools’ efforts to keep children safe and providing them with a good education.