Why parents should support schools

Like all parents, I want the best for my children. When they’re unhappy, I’m unhappy. When they suffer injustice, I’m incensed. When their school makes a decision I disagree with, my first reaction is to get in touch and point out where they’ve gone wrong and what they should do about it.

When she was in primary school, my eldest daughter had a teacher who believed in the power of collective punishment, and, as a well-behaved, hard-working pupil she was made to suffer for the poor behaviour of some of the other children in her class. This struck both her and me as completely unfair.

My youngest daughter had a teacher who set a weekly spelling test. Spelling has been a particular problem for her – we now think this was probably caused by, at least in part, a case of undiagnosed glue ear when she was in Year 1. Despite making a real effort to learn her spelling list each week, she would often struggle to get more than half of the spellings correct in the test. The fact that she found this embarrassing was bad enough, but then her teacher started keeping children who failed to get at least half the spelling right in at break time for some extra practice. This struck both her and me as completely unfair.

In both cases, we thought long and hard about whether to contact the teachers in question and express our concerns. In the end, we decided to let the collective punishment go as we worried that raising it would do more to undermine the teacher than not. In the second case we decided the problem was too pressing not to say how we felt. Although we took pains to do this politely and proportionately, I’m sure it probably came as an unwelcome intrusion to the teacher in question. But, we explained that our daughter worked hard to learn her weekly list of spellings and that punishing her for not being very good at something didn’t really seem the right way to solve the problem. We agreed that in the future our daughter would be allowed to go to break even if she didn’t achieve the pass mark. This led to break time punishments for poor spelling being abandoned for all children.

Did we do the right thing? It’s hard to tell. As far as our daughter’s feelings went, we think we probably did, but in prioritising our own narrow self-interest were we perhaps guilty of undermining the school? This is something I’ve really struggled with and, since they’ve moved on to secondary school, we’ve made the decision, as parents, that whenever possible we will support the school rather than simply fighting for our daughters’ preferment. Sometimes they complain about the attitude or practices of one teacher or another, but we’re clear that unless there is a major injustice we will not support these complaints. This seems like the right thing to do.

Today I came across this story from BBC South East:

Louise McGowan, headteacher of Walderslade Girls’ School in Kent, raise some very important points. She says that about 5% of the 900 girls at her school regularly flout school rules. Here’s an extract from a letter she sent home to parents:

Part of the problem is, McGowan explains, cause by children complaining to their parents and those parents them refusing to support the school’s efforts to maintain discipline. She is quoted as saying that, “The relationship and trust between schools and parents is breaking down. By screaming at teachers, parents are not instilling respect or right from wrong in their own children.” I know nothing about the context or challenges of  Walderslade Girls’ School but these are experiences that will chime with most teachers in most schools. The increasing occurrence of parents supporting badly behaved children over their teachers is summed up by this popular internet meme:

McGowan is reported as saying, “A good education goes hand in hand with discipline, you need both in adulthood”. I agree. Self-discipline, or self-control – the ability to control our emotions – is an important factor in later success, and is a trait schools should certainly try to instil in their students but, more importantly I think, without order and discipline, the classroom climate is unlikely to be one in which students can learn effectively. Without good behaviour nothing else is likely to work well, but with good behaviour, almost anything becomes possible.

As a parent I support my children’s school right not to accept excuses for bad behaviour. Of course, as I’ve argued before, there are usually reasons for such behaviour and some of these reasons may even be good one, but these reasons, heartbreaking though they may be, are not an excuse to break the rules. McGowan says there have been cases where “parents actively fought on behalf of the child against the school, even when their child was in breach of the behaviour policy”. There is never an excuse for this. If we accept children’s, or parents’, excuses then we tolerate a worse educational experience for everyone. If instead we take account of children’s, and parents’ reasons and work with them to take responsibility for these reasons not to be used as excuses, then the experience of everyone involved in education – children, parents and teachers – ought to improve.

Sometimes teachers and school leaders will make mistakes. Sometimes, through thoughtless or lack of information, school will make decisions which parents feel to be wrong. No one is perfect – certainly no parent or child – and, of course, schools should be held to account for their judgements. But how parents go about doing this matters. Our default should be to support the school until we have the full information. Everyone, teachers and parents, should support Louise McGowan in her stand against parents undermining schools’ efforts to keep children safe and providing them with a good education.

19 Responses to Why parents should support schools

  1. I understand where you’re coming from but in some cases, if parents do not put forward a point of view, then institutions get away with a continuation of unfair and sometimes dangerous policies. Collective punishment is a example, which I believe to be unacceptable. If we all go along thinking this is a fair or acceptable way to treat children, then we undermine the potential for the adult they could become.
    The headteachers letter is shocking, but the problem of a lack of obedience is only an issue if blind obedience from children is your goal. It’s not mine. Children learn respect when they are given it. They learn best when they are fully involved in the process of what, where and how they learn.
    When schools really understand that young people have rights (they actually do), they may begin to understand where it’s all going wrong.
    Schools do get things wrong, didn’t a young boy die last week in isolation?
    Parents need to have their child’s back. Some schools are very dangerous places to be. More punishments are not the answer, we have it very back to front.

    • David Didau says:

      ‘Blind obedience’ is very much a pejorative. It implies something unthinking, unreasoned and conditioned. As such I think it’s a straw man. I am interested in children (and parents) deferring to adult authority as a default and only when there is clear reason to think an injustice has been committed should we seek to undermine that authority. It’s just not true to say “Children learn respect when they are given it. They learn best when they are fully involved in the process of what, where and how they learn.” These are assumption lacking empirical support. In fact, children are much more likely to to be respectful (both to adults and each other) when the cultural norm supports this behaviour. In east Asian cultures, where the prevailing belief is that the group’s needs always trump individual needs, we just don’t see the level of disobedience that is endemic in the UK.

      Of course schools make mistakes – I made that point explicitly. But punishment does not make school more dangerous. Punishment (and certainty is key here, not severity) is fundamental to orderly discipline and good behaviour. We all have to know that there are consistently applied, fair consequences for bad behaviour. When this is established, schools are safer and children are happier.

      • I agree that a default position is certainly more convenient, but that can only be given if you believe in the ethos/values of the institution. When my daughter recently spent a couple of terms in year 6, I really did try that. Ultimately though their values were in such sharp contrast to mine and in the end, my daughters, that it would have been very hard to keep supporting the school. It was one of those schools where you cannot get near a teacher even if you wanted to, which I think was part of the problem because I think parent involvement is key to safe and ordered school environment.

  2. P.S. I really enjoy reading your blog, you are far more intelligent than me and it gets my brain active on a Saturday morning!:)

  3. Marie says:

    It’s curious – I would have done the opposite with the cases described at the beginning. Collective punishment is a means to pressure the good students into bringing the bad students in line, and that’s not their responsibility. I’d be standing up to that one. But I often ask students to come in for break if they’ve failed a test or quiz. Maybe the difference is that I don’t see it as a punishment but as a bonus offer of support. How could more time spent with me possibly be a punishment!? But I agree with the rest. In our school one problem I face is parents insisting student work should be accepted months late because the kids are so involved in things outside of school, they shouldn’t be expected to have the same timelines as the rest of the class. I suggest, if it’s the case that their profs and bosses in future won’t give them a special timeline because of their sports or arts involvement (which they won’t), then perhaps it’s best for us to prepare them for that harsh reality.

    • David Didau says:

      Maybe the difference is your perception vs children’s perception. In the collective punishment condition, although our daughter thought it unfair, she thought it more unfair that naughty children went entirely unpunished. She was prepared to sacrifice some personal liberty to ensure the offenders were held to account. In the spelling condition, the teacher thought – like you – that she was offering extra support. This was not a view shared either by us as parents our our daughter.

      • Marie says:

        It seems, for the collective punishment condition, the perception was that it’s a choice of collective punishment or no punishment at all, rather than everyone being cognizant of other possibilities. For the extra help, I’m curious what prompts the view that it’s a punishment. Perhaps it’s the timing – that it takes away something too valued. Or it’s the presentation – that it’s not offered as an option but a requirement, or even just that it’s suggested sternly instead of warmly. Or maybe it’s that it wasn’t actually helping because your daughter already practiced significantly, but a physical condition – not a void of effort – was creating a barrier to learning. I’m disappointed the service was abandoned for all children. How should teachers better offer extra help to students struggling with a concept without asking them to come see them outside of class time? I teach grade 12, which is a whole other ballgame, and, after their first essay, I offer lunch time grammar lessons for anyone that lost marks on the essay because of grammar errors. It’s optional, but I also throw in a carrot: if they write a test at the end (taken from the SATs), whatever the mark is on the test is the new mark on the grammar portion of their last essay. My extra help slots are full. So, instead of “break time punishment for poor spelling being abandoned,” it could so easily be re-jigged to be perceived as a support rather than a punishment: Change the timing; present it warmly, and offer a reward. For little ones, it might be as easy as providing a treat when they get there and making it social and interactive.

        • David Didau says:

          In the article I hyperlinked to a post I’ve written on what to do instead of collective punishment. Did you read it?

          • Marie says:

            Yes, and it sounds like you’re against the practice there, but accept the practice here for fear of undermining the teacher.

          • David Didau says:

            Fear? No. For a wide range of issues which have nothing whatsoever to do with this post we came to a particular decision as being the best in we could make in the circumstances. As far as I’m concerned comments on whether or not I should have complained are closed. Please feel free to debate other aspects of the post. Thanks

  4. Pique Boo says:

    We went and talked to, didn’t shout at, a primary Y6 teacher who unwisely decided to keep the entire class in the classroom every lunchtime until a child owned up to doing something that might not have involved any of them. I don’t like ‘hostage-taking’ and by then we were several no-lunchtimes into it. Teacher backed down just in time because quite a few of the children had impishly conspired to break the stalemate with an “I’m Sparticus!” performance that day.

    I bet that parents arguing that school is ‘picking on my child’ turns up a lot. I suspect many schools don’t do themselves any favours with a bitty, inconsistent approach to school rules and behaviour. I’ll skip tales of behaviour which could take a while, but one scenario I’ve heard about quite a lot is some dip-stick teacher getting children to use their mobiles for things in lessons when mobiles are supposed to banned in lessons. It is a *lot* easier to support the school when they are making an obviously serious and consistent effort to enforce a set of largely rational rules.

    Which parents are you hoping to reach with this?

    • David Didau says:

      Oh, absolutely: teachers who don’t uphold a school’s are the *worst*. There is a special corner of hell reserved just for them. They undermine their colleagues and confuse things for children and parents alike.

      I wasn’t hoping to reach anyone – I just write what is on my mind.

  5. Lesley says:

    My daughter is just completing her Higher year (where she needs top grades in her exams for the university course she wants to do). She attends a “high performing ” Scottish state school with an ‘excellent reputation’ in a ‘successful’ local authority. She’s a straight ‘A’ student and very hard working.

    For her Higher English course the school put her and several similar ability pupils in a class with a variety of pupils who failed the exam last year due to disruptive behavior in class, proven plagiarism and a variety of other misdemeanors which largely persisted throughout this year too. The teacher has a reputation and track record for disinterest, not enforcing discipline, laziness, swearing and name calling of pupils in class, condoning disruptive behavior (students playing games on phones during lessons, throwing water bottles – seriously !)

    When, finally, it got too much for her to bear, trying to work in the midst of all the carry on with zero support from her teacher, she spoke to me and together we spoke to her head of year. They were supportive, although nothing much changed and she dragged herself through the rest of the year as best she could.

    At best this situation is the converse of the ‘collective punishment’, where the good kids are supposed to set an example to the others. That is not fair on them and is a total abdication of responsibility by the school when it comes to managing behavior. Sometimes you have to intervene. Most teachers, and schools are genuinely trying their very best for pupils but sometimes their self-interest takes over. In this case the schools attitude attitude was clearly that the bright, hard working kids would probably drag themselves through the course in spite of their lazy, ineffectual teacher and disruptive class mates and that is simply not fair.

    I also very much enjoy your posts and books and generally agree with what you say (I also teach). Parents should always support the school when it comes to managing the behavior of pupils but I’ve seen too many examples of the school putting their own interests before those of pupils to let this one go unremarked. Of course possibly the school was dealing with those individuals behind the scenes and simply not getting the support of their parents … but actually, I don’t think so.

  6. paulgmoss says:

    David cmon, Everyone who has ever read your reactions to comments on your posts knows full well that you wouldn’t be able to hold back on ineffective teaching practices, especially if it involved your own children. But please be aware that if your children realised you were fighting harder for other causes compared to theirs, there’s no coming back from that.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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