Another day, another ludicrous idea from one of the Michaels. This time it’s Michael Wilshaw, chief of Ofsted, saying that parents should be fined if they don’t, amongst other things, make children do their homework.
This story made my blood boil when I read it this morning, and I can feel the fury rising inside me reading it again now. I mean, who does this man think he is? To make sweeping statements about the causes of underachievement amongst children growing up in poverty, to drive a wedge between parents and schools in the communities where close collaboration is perhaps most important, to blithely dictate what it is that makes a good parent in such a patronising and unpleasant manner. There are so many things wrong with his proposals that I almost don’t know where to start, but I will try.
Let’s just begin with what he expects of good parents. I agree that communicating with the school is pretty important, though I also know there are a multitude of reason why someone may not be able to attend a designated parents’ evening – and the realities of those evenings (or afternoons, or days) is that there is little scope for in depth discussion about young people’s progress, especially if they’re struggling.
I agree, of course, that reading is something to be encouraged – urgently so given the impact it can have on children’s lives. But you can’t force someone to read for pleasure – adult or child – and the real focus should surely be on expanding local libraries rather than closing them, or maybe reinstating the funding that would bring inspirational authors into schools on a regular basis.
And then we come to the tricky subject of homework. I never much liked homework, neither as a child nor as a teacher. And with educational research throwing up little to support its position as a tool to improve learning, and officials in countries from China to France and Sweden seeking to reduce it or ban it altogether, it seems a funny time for Wilshaw to be insisting on its importance. I’m not saying that there aren’t times when it is appropriate for students to work on something at home, but teachers setting tasks for the sake of it then parents battling with demotivated kids to complete homework that’s only going to increase teachers’ workloads when they have to mark it just makes no sense at all to me.
But to be honest it’s not the nitty gritty of Wilshaw’s proposals that I find so offensive, even if they are typically narrow-minded and outdated in their origins. What I find really unbelievable is that he can think that pitching schools and parents against each other is really the best way to get them to work together to support the young people in their care. The bullying tactics he used against the parents at his old school in Hackney are really not going to work for anyone – and I can’t imagine that many head teachers would want to take the approach he describes.
The issues that lead to underachievement in impoverished communities are complex and far-reaching. Many of them have their roots in low self-esteem perpetuated by generations of un- or under-employment – in a lack of trust in the system, and schools in particular. The only way to truly overcome this is to help communities believe in themselves again, to show what they can achieve for themselves and for their children when they work hard, to celebrate successes and find the things that motivate them to change.
Treating parents as naughty school kids themselves would have the opposite effect – sure people might purport to play the game, might jump through the hoops they need to to escape the fines, but that is a long way from nurturing the impetus for learning that will truly help young people escape the cycle of poverty.
And what if parents don’t play the game? To be honest the ones that are hardest to reach, that aren’t already responding to schools’ attempts to engage them, are highly unlikely to give two hoots about the prospect of a fine. And what then? Protracted and costly legal proceedings, culminating in poor families being poorer still and so condemning the young people who most need our help to an even harder struggle?
I don’t know whether Wilshaw intended to be taken seriously, or whether he was just firing off another simplistic idea for the sake of it. But I do know that his way of thinking is incredibly damaging to our society – and it is time that parents stood together with schools to tell him that enough is enough.