At a discussion about the inspection regime recently, the most interesting idea was that more genuine accountability would develop if schools were much more open to visits by parents during the working day. Many tax-funded schools make it simply impossible for tax-paying parents to see them in action, only allowing parental visits at well orchestrated open evenings, where everything can be controlled and the most well behaved pupils can be paraded, along with glossy Powerpoint presentations and brochures. We all know how accurate such a vision of the school is likely to be.
If parents are not being permitted to see what is being done to their children day in, day out, what choice do they really have? They cannot choose between schools if they do not really know what is going on in schools.
If state schools are unwilling to allow parents to visit during the working day, we have to ask ourselves why this is. Of course it does entail a certain amount of administration, but that could soon be overcome, as long as management do not overdo child protection to the point of paranoia. One wonders, in fact, whether the increasingly hysterical attitude to child protection is part of the bureaucratic drive to undermine parental authority and dignity. It certainly promotes the idea that children are only to be trusted with state certified officials, and this category does not, of course, include their parents.
The more that genuine parental choice, and the dignity that comes with it, is promoted, the more of a healthy and open relationship parents and teachers can have. Thankfully, there is still a recognition in English law that parents have the right to educate their own children. This is the ideal starting point for parental involvement. They should have the awareness that they have chosen school, in a general sense, over home education. Then they should have a conscious awareness of choosing a particular school, and making that choice based on real knowledge of how the school operates and whether that is in accord with the way in which they wish their child to be educated.
Giving parents real choice would give them back the dignity and authority which is naturally theirs, and would lead to their taking a greater practical interest in education. When educational choice is taken away from most parents in any meaningful sense, it is no wonder that many are ignorant about education, or apathetic about it. They have been told that the professionals always know better. The state has removed their authority and their dignity from them. We’ve seen this attitude illustrated strongly in the way ordinary people have been treated as stupid and incapable of making informed choices in the EU referendum campaign and its aftermath. In fact, people respond when they are given genuine choice. My wife, for example, had always found politics dull and remained fairly unengaged until the EU referendum. But when she realised that this was a moment where she actually had a significant choice to make, she began reading about politics with interest. Those who have real choices naturally want to make informed choices.
Once a healthy relationship between schools and parents, based on their authority and their genuine choice, is established, then schools should not need to fear parental involvement. They should be able to be open with parents about what they can and can’t provide. Parents can then make informed choices, firstly about whether they wish their child to attend school at all, and secondly about which school they wish them to attend.
True choice for parents and accountability to parents would also involve making it easier for parents to set up their own schools. When I first heard about the free school programme, I thought that it would genuinely make it possible for parents to establish schools according to their own vision for education. But it quickly became clear that the level of bureaucratic oversight made it possible only for professionals and bureaucrats working together to set up so called ‘free’ schools. The state apparatus seems to be allergic to allowing genuine freedom and autonomy for ordinary people. They must always be managed. They cannot be trusted.
For all its strengths, the free school programme did not put real agency for parents on the table. This is simply not possible as long as the bureaucratic mentality prevails, the mindset which dictates that the professionals always know better than the laypeople who fork out the taxes that pay the professionals’ salaries. It is this bureaucratic mentality which makes Ofsted such a crippling burden on state education, but before they point the finger at inspectors, teachers need to examine some of their own assumptions about whether ordinary people should be allowed any genuine authority over their own children’s education, or whether parents really should just do as they are told by state officials.