Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Schools overwhelmed by parenting role? Some years ago a community worker was telling me about the children in her area - 'some of them lead such unstructured lives,' she said, 'it's amazing they turn up for anything.' Now I fear there is truth in this: "Schools are being required to take on more and more of the responsibilities that rightly belong to parents; and to provide more of the stability in children's lives which should be provided by families." The quote is from Philip Parkin, general secretary of the teachers' union Voice, in today's Guardian. The article by Jessica Shepherd notes: Schools already have to check pupils for weapons, gang membership and extremist views, as well as measure their weight and speech development. The [UK government] schools secretary, Ed Balls, wants schools to chart children's well-being, teenage pregnancies, drug problems and criminal records from next year as well. Parkin said he was worried that the more schools did for parents, the less responsibility they would take for their children. "The transfer of responsibility becomes complete and the expectations upon parents reduce," he said. This prediction might be far-fetched, I don't know, but it's worrying, and it fits with my growing sense that there is a sharpening contrast between those young people who have supported childhoods and those who don't. Part of the response might be to ask, is it too late to put forward neighbourhoods as the primary environment where norms of behaviour are shared, tested, learned and accommodated? Is it possible to rescue the idea of neighbours as co-producers of the culture and norms of behaviour around them? Not, it seems, while so many of the sources of cultural capital (including education but especially 'parenting') are only fitfully or partially available to so many. (I really mean something broader than 'parenting' - positive individualised support from known and trusted adults is what I mean). Schools also have to deal with our society's inconsistencies around the baggage and paraphenalia of faith groups, as in yesterday's court judgement in favour of a 14-year-old Sikh girl who had been banned from school for wearing the kara (a bangle widely accepted as a symbol of the Sikh 'race and religion') in defiance of regulations. (NB in some interpretations, the case rested on the definition of Sikhism as both race and religion, making the school governors' role a no-win situation and probably leaving quite a few of the supporters of Liberty, which supported the student's case, a bit uncomfortable). School regulations on jewellery it seems (not to mention daggers of course, another widely accepted Sikh symbol) can be trumped by religion, especially if it can defend itself as race. This makes it hard for teachers and governors to know where society expects them to take a stand. And when we're all confused, there's even less stability in young people's lives.

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