Parenting isn’t a bunch of skills that can be taught
Frank Field’s proposal to have a GCSE in parenting would denigrate both what it means to be a parent and the purpose of education.
If the Lib-Con education secretary Michael Gove really means business and plans to keep his promise to raise educational standards, then he should politely reject Frank Field’s hare-brained proposal to put parenting on the GCSE curriculum. At a time when far too many schools are struggling to teach their pupils basic literacy and numeracy, Field has proposed a formal exam for 16-year-olds which would turn them into the ‘five-star parents’ of tomorrow.
When I first read the proposals, drawn up by Labour’s Field but now being considered by the Lib-Cons, I thought it might be a clever work of satire designed to poke fun at Britain’s inept and meddling politicians. Hitherto, the dishing out of gold stars and smiley faces was confined to increasingly sceptical schoolkids; now, however, parents could find themselves infantilised by having their methods and behaviour judged by a star system in school classrooms!
What better way to degrade education than to suggest, as Field does, that ‘schools will want to teach this to boost their standing in the league tables’. At a time when many British schools already try to manipulate league tables by encouraging their students to opt for soft, unchallenging subjects, exhorting schools to embrace yet more nonsense in a dumbed-down curriculum just seems surreal.
Hopefully, there are still some serious policymakers who will understand that a school course on parenting would do nothing to improve the quality of family and community life. Parenting is not a skill or an academic subject that can be effectively communicated in an institutional setting. The core assumption of social engineers, and of policymakers like Field, is that child-rearing consists of a range of practices that mothers and fathers need to learn. On the surface of things, no one could dispute this assertion: every human relationship involves learning and gaining an understanding of the other person. A parent needs to learn how to engage the imagination of a child; how to stimulate him or her; how to restrain him or her from doing something harmful. Yet these things cannot simply be taught to prospective parents; instead, experience shows that effective child-rearing is learned on the job. Why? Because the most crucial lessons parents are learning have little to do with abstract skills and instead are about the very relationship they are developing with their children. Learning how to manage this relationship in order to guide a child’s development is the crux of effective parenting.
The issue is not so much whether parenting needs to be learned, but whether it can be taught. Everyday experience tells us that not everything that has to be learned can be taught. Parenting can’t be taught, because it is about the forging and managing of an intimate relationship. And when it comes to relationships, people learn principally from their experiences. Relationships have unique characteristics that are only really grasped by the people involved. People learn through reflecting on their experience of joy and pain, the exhilaration and the disappointments of their interactions with someone who is significant to their lives.
When it comes to a real school subject, such as maths or science, it is possible to teach facts without the student having personally to experience and discover them for himself. It is possible to teach skills that can be applied in all scientific experiments. But this is not the case with parenting. The very instability of parenting advice, and the regularity with which yesterday’s authoritative recipe for ‘good parenting’ is dismissed as hopelessly inaccurate and replaced with another, indicate that the idea of ‘teaching parenting’ is really prejudice masquerading as a skill. It is sad that a respected political figure like Frank Field has not yet learned that parenting is not a skill, but a relationship – and a messy one at that.
Sadly, we live in a world in which virtually every social problem is associated with poor parenting. The simplistic doctrine of parental determinism spares policymakers from engaging in the serious business of grasping complex social phenomena. Parenting has become an all-purpose causal agent that apparently explains all the bad stuff. Solving this apparent parenting deficit is presented as a way of fixing society. At a time when parenting is more extensively discussed than ever before, it is curious that Field states that ‘our nation has fallen out of love with the art of being good parents’. In the real world, parenting has acquired a sacred, quasi-religious character. Parenting is culturally valued more than ever before. Indeed, there is now a veritable parenting industry and there has never been a time when British fathers and mothers have felt so anxious and concerned about their roles. Thirty years ago, parenting was not seen as a suitable issue for policymakers. Today, it has become a focus for political discourse. And as I argued in my book Paranoid Parenting, this obsession with parenting has had the perverse effect of eroding parental confidence and complicating family life.
Fiddling with the curriculum
Field’s proposal is bad news for parents. But if implemented, it would have serious damaging consequences for education, too. Some hoped that after the defeat of New Labour, policymakers would resist the temptation to politicise the curriculum. But sadly, some politicians remain addicted to the dead-end strategy of attempting to fix the problems of society through fiddling with what is taught in schools. Anyone familiar with the experiences of the past two decades knows that our schools have become the target of competing groups of policymakers, moral entrepreneurs and advocacy organisations, all of whom want to use the curriculum to promote their own ideals and values. As a result, pedagogic issues are continually confused with political ones.
The school curriculum has become a battleground for zealous campaigners and entrepreneurs. Public-health officials constantly demand more compulsory classroom discussions on healthy eating and obesity. Professionals obsessed with young people’s sex lives insist that schools introduce yet more sex-education initiatives. Others want schools to focus more on Black History or Gay History. In early 2007, the then New Labour education secretary, Alan Johnson, announced that not only was he introducing Global Warming Studies, but that he would also make Britain’s involvement in the slave trade a compulsory part of the history curriculum.
At a time when educators feel unable to endow their vocation with real meaning, they continually turn to new causes in order to transmit at least some semblance of values. This was the intention behind Johnson’s announcement, in February 2007, that ‘we need the next generation to think about their impact on the environment in a different way’. Johnson justified this project, aimed at shaping the cultural outlook of children, through appealing to a higher truth: ‘If we can instill in the next generation an understanding of how our actions can mitigate or cause global warming, then we lock in a culture change that could, quite literally, save the world.’ ‘Saving the world’ looks like a price worth paying for fiddling with the geography curriculum and using it to instruct children about global warming. But behind the lofty rhetoric lie some base assumptions.
The curriculum is increasingly regarded as a vehicle for promoting political objectives and for changing the values, attitudes and sensibilities of children. Many advocacy organisations who demand changes to the curriculum do not have the slightest interest in the subject they wish to influence – as far as they’re concerned, they are simply gaining recognition for their cause. That is what Nick Clegg, deputy PM and leader of the Liberal Democrats, was doing when he argued that education must tackle homophobia and that Ofsted inspectors should assess how well schools are managing the problem of homophobia. Sex experts continually demand that the amount of time devoted to sex education be expanded. In July 2008, the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV noted that pupils were getting inadequate instruction because sex education was not a compulsory subject. The same month, the Family Planning Association argued that children as young as four should receive age-appropriate ‘compulsory sex education’, with sex and relationship education enjoying a position in the curriculum similar to other compulsory subjects, like maths and English.
While the campaign to transform sex education into a compulsory school subject is sometimes questioned by traditionalist critics, many similar initiatives around different causes are not remarked upon. In September 2008, the New Labour government announced changes to the national curriculum that will instruct boys as young as 11 on how to be good fathers. Children would be taught that if they abandon their offspring they will face prosecution and a possible jail sentence. Where did this initiative come from? It certainly doesn’t represent a response to a pedagogic problem identified in the classroom – rather it emerged from the deliberations of policymakers and experts who feel strongly that something should be done about ‘deadbeat dads’. And when that question ‘what should be done?’ is posed, they inevitably come up with the now-formulaic solution: deal with it in the national curriculum.
So Janet Paraskeva, chair of the UK Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, stated that: ‘There needs to be something in the national curriculum to make children aware they will need to take financial responsibility for their children.’ Parakeva insisted that she meant business, arguing ‘this won’t be a simple bolt-on to the national curriculum’ since ‘we want to give children at a young age a good understanding of the financial commitment of becoming parents’.
Pareskeva’s proposals expose the fundamental flaw in all this curriculum meddling. It assumes that the problems of the adult world can be fixed through instruction in the classroom. But of course, it is not a lack of information that is responsible for anti-social behaviour or the disorientation of the adult world. Forcing children to deal with adult problems exposes them to issues that they can’t do anything about, while depriving them of a real education. Field argues that disadvantaged children in particular will benefit from studying for a GCSE in parenting. I beg to differ. What disadvantaged children need is high-quality, subject-based education. They can’t afford the luxury of wasting time on well-meaning social experiments. Experience shows that the proliferation of social-engineering initiatives on the curriculum benefits no one, while disproportionately penalising those with minimal access to intellectual capital.