‘Detention, detention, detention’

Parenting orders, on-the-spot fines... the Brownites are planning to use the education system to police mums and dads as much as educate kids.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

Last week, the UK government announced extra powers that will give schools and local authorities even greater leeway to punish parents for the misbehaviour of their children. Such powers are likely to reinforce today’s trend to infantilise teenagers while increasing divisions between schools and parents.

Under the regulations, parents of teenagers expelled or suspended from school face prosecution and a possible £1,000 fine if they fail to keep their kids indoors during the day. Headteachers will also have the power to go to court to obtain parenting orders – which place obligations on parents backed by the threat of prosection – rather than involving the local authority. Ed Balls, the UK schools secretary, said: ‘Schools can only do so much in isolation. Parents have to be responsible for instilling right and wrong, too. Our measures help to create a more united front against poor behaviour.’ Other measures include banning suspended or expelled children from public places during school hours in an attempt to stop them from getting into trouble or treating their punishment as a holiday (1).

Former UK prime minister Tony Blair famously once said that New Labour’s key principles were ‘education, education, education’. Judging by the obsession with controlling kids (and their parents), the party’s key focus today is ‘detention, detention, detention’. As the number of children expelled from schools has actually fallen in recent years, it would seem that the government is overstating the extent of unruly behaviour in British schools.

The new punishing measures have little to do with raising educational standards; rather they’re a transparent attempt to point the finger of blame at apparently ‘uncouth’ parents. As Balls put it: ‘I want heads to engage with parents, including using parenting contracts at an early stage so that schools and parents are able to work together to prevent bad behaviour from escalating.’ (2) Forget about dropping the kids off to school and then going to work – it seems the government wants parents to go back to the classroom as well.

New Labour’s crude and ill-judged authoritarianism is objectionable. And in any event, these new powers won’t improve classroom behaviour. The government seems to be implying that working-class parents have failed to discipline their children properly, thus giving rise to disruptive behaviour in the classroom. Thus, the authorities need to instill a sense of right and wrong in both children and parents. In truth, the dynamics of school life are such that children do not necessarily act in the same way in the classroom as they do at home. A child might be well-behaved and respectful at home but start to play up and be disruptive in the company of other kids.

The old teacher cliché ‘you wouldn’t do that at home, would you?’ was based on the observation that children are more likely to play around at school. It was therefore the job of teachers to socialise children into behaving maturely with others. Schools are society in microcosm, where children learn how to interact with others in a public environment based on universal standards. How can children be equipped with the norms required for adulthood if they are packed off to mum and dad when they are disruptive? Disruptive children need to be integrated into schooling far more if they’re to learn how to behave in such an environment, not simply be sent home and kept off the streets, too.

Far from Ed Balls and headteachers ‘getting tough’ with poorly behaved schoolchildren and their parents, the latest proposals smack of wanting secondary-school kids to remain at the level of toddlers – forever in the custody of their parents.

Even when schools do attempt to socialise children these days, the emphasis is on cushioning them from the temptations of the big, bad outside world. In recent years, that has meant keeping kids away from such dens of iniquity as the local chippie or burger joint. Education chiefs in Denbighshire, North Wales, for instance, are locking the school gates at lunchtime in order to force children to eat healthy dinners. As with the lunchbox inspectors, and letters to parents advising them to feed their children ‘properly’, it surely won’t be long before parents are issued with fixed penalty notices (ie, ‘on-the-spot’ fines) for failing to feed their children five fruit-and-veg per day.

The education system these days spends as much time policing parents as educating children. Under the new rules, parents who allow their children to be in a public place without justification within five days of being excluded from school will be fined £50. And if parents do not pay within 42 days, they face prosecution and a possible £1,000 fine. Should parents be criminalised for the failures of schools and teachers to do their job properly – that is, to integrate problematic children and shape their behaviour in an institutional environment?

In the past, schools would liaise with parents regarding their children’s poor or disruptive behaviour by calling mum and dad in for an informal chat with the headteacher. Underpinning these meetings was a sense of adult solidarity regarding the joint responsibility of parents and teachers towards children. Now, the government is so far removed from ordinary parents that it doesn’t know how to appeal to such basic, everyday solidarities. Instead, the fixed penalty notice is hastily drafted in to fill the gap where shared beliefs and ideas should be. New Labour is deeply bereft of any moral framework through which it can provide British society with guidance and purpose. And the authorities seem to believe that ordinary people are incapable of responding to civic ideas of right and wrong anyway. As the British public is often seen to be ‘crassly materialistic’, and only concerned with what’s in their wallets, the fixed penalty notice is probably seen as the best solution: money, the ‘only language these people understand’.

The latest figures on expelled children hardly point to a massive crisis in schooling. Instead, the introduction of fines for parents who don’t babysit their expelled children shows how the government wants parents, as much as schoolchildren, to conform to behavoural diktat. Rather than offering a vision of the Good Society, New Labour believes that financial punishments are the panacea to make everyone into a model citizen. In truth, all it really shows is that, when it comes to devising decent educational policies, New Labour is a few pence short of a pound.

Neil Davenport is writer and politics lecturer based in London.

Previously on spiked

Jennie Bristow said parents shouldn’t have to go crawling to the headteachers for permission to take their children on holiday. David Perks said the teachers, pupils and parents don’t need no thought control. Josie Appleton wrote about a mother of five who was locked up as part of New Labour’s war on truancy. Mick Hume said no thanks to ‘parent power’ in education. Or read more at spiked issue Education.

(1) Parents to be fined if they don’t keep expelled pupils at home, The Times (London), 5 September 2007

(2) Parents to be fined if they don’t keep expelled pupils at home, The Times (London), 5 September 2007

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Topics Politics


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