Hey, teacher, leave those parents alone
In our recently published book, Parenting Culture Studies, my co-authors and I argue that parental determinism – the belief that social problems are directly caused by the inadequacies of parents – has come to dominate UK public policy. So it comes as no great surprise to read the following, in the latest report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, on what should be done about ‘child poverty’ and ‘social mobility’: ‘The starting point should be parenting. Effective parenting has a bigger influence on a child’s life than wealth, class or education.’
According to author Alan Milburn and his fellow commissioners, four in 10 parents are inadequate, and should be given parenting classes, which would inculcate in them five key tenets of good parenting: ‘Talking, reading, playing, cuddling and communicating.’
The claim that what parents do in the ‘home-learning environment’ makes more of an impact on a child’s attainment than the school they attend has been repeated ad nauseum ever since New Labour’s time in office. Much of what is in this new report could be (and probably is) cut-and-pasted from various policy documents over the past decade. Indeed, the ‘novel idea’ of this report – ‘talking, reading, playing, cuddling and communicating’ – has already been proposed by the Liberal Democrat think-tank Centre Forum. According to Milburn, it is time to break the ‘taboo’ on making parenting a policy issue. One has to wonder: what taboo? The British state has been intervening in parenting for the best part of a decade.
There are two ways, however, in which this latest report takes parenting policy even further.
The first is the way that this report sets the child against the parent. It actually has the temerity to blame parents directly for their own child’s problems, setting the child against their own flesh and blood. An idea that was only ever implied in previous reports and policies – that parents are, more than anything else, the reason for their children’s failings – is presented plainly, and used to justify the most stifling and patronising intervention.
The second is the report’s suggestion that teachers should play an active role in ‘calling out’ bad parents and referring them to parenting classes. Again, there is some precedent for this. The Department for Education (DfE) has implemented fines for parents who take their children out of school during term time, while packed lunches are often inspected at schools to ensure children are eating properly. However, this is the first time there has been such an overt attempt to undermine the ‘parent-school partnership’ and make it clear to all where the real authority lies. In what world could it benefit kids from worse-off families, in particular, to have their parents manifestly treated as idiot supplicants, ‘called out’ by the teacher and sent off to a parenting class? In what world could such hectoring help to address the issue of discipline, which rests on parents having a sense of confidence and authority?
The best response to this divisive tract would be for us all to have a grown-up conversation about what kind of parenting culture we really want.
Dr Ellie Lee is a reader in social policy at the University of Kent, director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS), and co-author of Parenting Culture Studies.
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