No friend of the family

They pose as the chummy cohorts of mums and dads. Yet family liaison officers in British schools are undermining teachers and keeping a suspicious eye on parents.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Politics

The first time I heard mention of the school family liaison officer was when, in the morning rush of dropping our children off at school, a close friend tearfully confided that she had been ‘asked’ by the headteacher to ‘have a chat’ with the family liaison officer. Two days later and another friend revealed exactly the same news. Who was this family liaison officer to make two of my friends, both with bright, healthy, much-loved children, somehow feel they had ‘failed’ at being good parents?

British parents are going to have to get used to them. If your local school doesn’t have a family liaison officer, it will soon. The exact job description of officers is difficult to pin down; they are often presented in recruitment adverts as neutral mediators between teachers and parents, helping families in ‘accessing relevant information’ (1). Allison Shepherd, the family liaison officer at a school in Thanet, Kent, describes her role as being ‘to provide support, help, friendship and act as a link between families and school’ (2). Jo Green from a primary school in Folkestone is similarly friendly: ‘My job is to help you. Should you be having personal problems or school related problems I am here as your listening ear.’ (3)

Behind the chummy ‘I just want to be your friend’ image, the role of the family liaison officer is to work with the parents of children considered to be at risk due to child protection concerns or at risk of social exclusion. They will work with the parents of children who truant or misbehave as well as parents with poor literacy and numeracy skills.

The aim of providing ‘parenting and family support’ was first raised in the UK government’s Green Paper, Every Child Matters, which was published in September 2003 in response to the investigation into the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié by her aunt and her aunt’s boyfriend in London in 2000 (4). Every Child Matters argues for the need for ‘specialist parenting support’, involving a range of home visiting programmes to teach parents how to best support their child’s development, and parent education programmes to provide training in ‘behavioural techniques’.

The message to emerge from Every Child Matters is that parents need to be monitored and taught how to behave if they are not to be a potential risk to their own children. Rejecting the friendly advances and offers of support from the family liaison officer may be enough to mark your child out as being ‘at risk’ in which case ‘compulsory action’ could be taken in the form of Parenting Orders.

The role of the family liaison officer may be presented as a means of protecting children considered to be at risk through supporting families, but the effect of such liaison serves only to undermine families at every stage. By stressing so emphatically that families need help to carry out the everyday demands of parenting (the word ‘support’ appears 176 times in Every Child Matters), the implication is that families do not do a good enough job when left to their own devices.

Both of my friends were asked to chat with the family liaison officer after their children got into fairly minor playground scraps. The very fact of being asked to discuss these incidents with a professional suggests, firstly, that children kicking each other in the dinner queue is something shockingly bad that requires intervention from at least five adults and, secondly, that it is something parents cannot be trusted to deal with on their own.

Presumably, within the context of much agonising as to why the child should demonstrate such behaviour, the family liaison officer will make some clichéd suggestion such as ‘reward their good behaviour’ or ‘put them on the naughty step’. At issue is not the value of the advice but the fact that by not allowing parents to work out these things for themselves, their confidence is undermined and the autonomy of the family unit is called into question.

Furthermore, having family liaison officers based in schools undermines the authority of teachers in dealing with unruly pupils. In the not-too-distant past, such a trivial incident as kicking a child in the dinner queue would have been dealt with by the class teacher, if it were actually deemed worthy of being dealt with at all. Go back a couple of years further and any sensible adult would have laughed at the notion of getting involved. Parents trusted teachers to deal with such minor offences.

Parents also trusted teachers to get on with the job of educating their children. Far from family liaison officers freeing up more time for teachers to spend on education, they will require paperwork referrals to be completed and formal mediation meetings to be attended. Teachers are no longer limited to the role of educating children but are expected to extend their responsibilities to an assessment of how well the children in their class are being brought up. The purpose of the school becomes renegotiated away from the academic education of the child to the social (re)education of the whole family.

Family liaison officers suggest teachers cannot sort out minor breaches of discipline by pupils and that parents and teachers cannot communicate with each other without the need for someone else to ‘mediate’. Formalising relationships between parents and teachers with the presumed necessity for third party mediation does nothing at all to help protect children. Far too much time is taken up with the dinner-queue-kickers who are neither a risk to others or at risk themselves. The informal end-of-the-day conversations in the school playground, where teachers and parents can pass on any concerns to each other, suddenly take on a new complexion if the parent fears anything they say may be reported to the family liaison officer.

Let’s not forget that the role of the family liaison officer originated from the police service where their aim is to mediate with families in order to better secure convictions. (5) The introduction of such policing techniques in schools heralds unprecedented interference into the autonomy of families – rather than supporting families this serves only to undermine them. Parents, when asked to meet with the family liaison officer, will only become less confident in their own ability to bring up their children as they see fit. This cannot possibly be to the benefit of the child. The best way for schools to support families is to leave them alone and concentrate on the job of educating their children.

Joanna Williams is researching the impact of social inclusion policy and she has three young children.

Previously on spiked

Helene Guldberg said Down with the Supernanny State. David Clements argued that while Every Child Matters, so does our privacy. Jennie Bristow went to the Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected conference. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1) Job advertisement for Family Liaison Officers, South Kilburn

(2) St Laurence in Thanet CEJ School

(3) Sandgate Primary School

(4) Every Child Matters, September 2003. Also see Children: over-protected and over-surveilled by Jennie Bristow and Leave those kids alone, by Helene Guldberg

(5) ACPO Family Liaison Strategy, Association of Chief Police Officers, 2000

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Topics Politics


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