Priests, parents or the state: who should be responsible for children’s education? – Part 3: the role of parents

In Loco Parentis

Throughout my teaching career the legal and professional advice to schools and individual teachers was at all times to act In Loco Parentis (as would a reasonable parent). This principle appears to give status to the role of parents, but in recent years government edicts have weakened this. Here are some examples. Would the following actions of a parent be reasonable?

Allowing their child to attend the marriage of their parents on a school day.

Allowing their child to attend the funeral of a sibling on a school day.

Taking their child on a much needed family holiday at a price they could afford in the last week of the Summer Term when nothing much is going on at school.

Withdrawing their child from SATs against the wishes of the school.

I would say, quite possibly, but the parents could be fined and the courts may imprison them if they refused to pay. This seems absurdly disproportionate. So we don’t hear a lot about In Loco Parentis these days.

School relationship and discipline policies

I grew up in a white working class community where the parental advice to me, if hit by a bullying child, was ‘was to hit them back as hard as I could’.

For 14 years I was headteacher of an inner urban, white working class secondary school where the parental culture sometimes conflicted with the school’s ‘relationships and anti-bullying policy‘.

I had no problem with insisting that parents instruct their children to comply with the school’s policies as supported by the governors and the ‘School Association’ (PTA). Eventually our students, through School Council, would usually persuade their parents that the school’s policy was the right approach and parents overwhelmingly supported it when quizzed by OfSTED inspectors.

But what about the extreme forms of school discipline that are spreading in Academy schools , which are supported by the government and unchallenged by OfSTED? Surely parents, not to mention Local Authority Social Services departments, should have a voice about the imposition of cruel and unreasonable punishments .

Religious Assemblies and RE

Should Roman Catholic/Muslim/Jewish parents be able to withdraw their children from school assemblies? It was never an issue in my headship school, because although we often invited local Ministers of Religion as guest speakers in our weekly Friday Assembly, it was on the condition of no prayers and no mention of God. We had a regular panel of such contributors who rose to the challenge brilliantly, enjoyed coming into our school and had excellent relationships with our students. Over the years we had many OfSTED inspectors present in our assemblies and no criticisms were ever made. Religious Education should comprise the factual study of the beliefs and practices of the many versions of Christianity practised in the UK together with the world’s major religions. This should be a vital, compulsory part of the curriculum for all pupils, especially for the children of parents that have a particular faith, because Ministers of Religion at places of worship cannot be relied upon to provide accurate factual information about other faiths.

The future of allegedly ‘failing schools’

There have been many parental campaigns against forced Academisation following OfSTED inspections. This is one example.  It is right that such parental resistance is spreading because there is growing parental concern about the competence and accountability of Academy Trusts such that there is growing parental support for the return of failing Academies to Local Authority control, which is strongly resisted by the government for ideological reasons.

It is surely right that local parents should have a say about whether private companies should be allowed to run their schools, rather than democratically accountable Local Authorities.

School governance

Sixty percent of English schools remain under the stewardship (not control) of Local Authorities (LAs). Parents have a well established legal role in the governance of LA schools (but not Academies). This is set out in the DfE document, The constitution of governing bodies of maintained schools Statutory guidance for governing bodies of maintained schools and local authorities in England, August 2017. The following extracts are relevant.

12. The governing body as a whole should take responsibility for understanding what parents think, while acknowledging that being parents themselves, parent governors have valuable knowledge and perspectives about the school to bring to bear in discussions and decisions and guarantee that there is always a link between governance and the parent community.

10. The governing body must operate, collectively, in the best interest of pupils, not as a collection of individuals lobbying on behalf of their constituencies.

18. While it is essential to build a strong and cohesive non-executive team, the most robust governing bodies welcome and thrive on having a sufficiently diverse range of viewpoints, such that open debate leads to good decisions in the interests of the whole school community. Notwithstanding the role of foundation governors in a faith designated school, governing bodies should be alert to the risk of becoming dominated by one particular mind-set or strand of opinion, whether related to faith or otherwise.

Sex education in Primary Schools

Anderton Park is a Birmingham LA maintained community primary school with no religious designation. Its governance is therefore subject to the 2017 Statutory Guidance. The governing board is responsible for the strategic direction of the school, including the delivery of the curriculum, raising standards and setting targets.  This responsibility includes monitoring the school’s Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) provision, ensuring this meets the needs of all pupils and reflects the community the school serves.

The current controversy surrounding the school has been extensively covered by the BBC and the Guardian. I strongly urge that these BBC and Guardian articles are read before continuing with this article. The context of parental protests appears to involve the Birmingham Pride march, the ‘Trojan Horse’ disputes of 2014 and the ‘No Outsiders’ teaching materials. Colin Diamond, the author of this ‘Schools Week’ article writes:

In 2014 the Trojan Horse episode brought national opprobrium to education in Birmingham. The proud tradition of leading-edge practice and innovation, which was particularly strengthened during the era when Tim Brighouse was chief education officer, had been undermined by people seeking to run inner city schools along Islamic principles. The defining feature of Trojan Horse was the infiltration of governing bodies with the aim of narrowing the curriculum and introducing teaching driven by the 2007 Muslim Council of Britain publication, ‘Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools’. The DfE’s Clarke Report and Birmingham City Council’s Kershaw Report both found substantial evidence of damaged governance, school leaders being undermined and pressure to introduce Islamic ideals.

This has echoes from my earlier article, which refers to literature from one such pressure group that seeks to target LA schools located within Muslim communities, where ‘white flight’ has resulted in their pupil populations becoming exclusively comprised of children with Muslim parents. Material published on the internet argues that such schools should be taken over by new Muslim Academy chains, within which all pupils and their teachers must adhere to the Muslim faith. It is easy to see why the proponents of exclusive schools for the children of Muslim faith parents want such schools to be Academies, because the Statutory Guidance for LA schools appears to prohibit just such a development. The following, from my article on ‘the role of the state‘ is therefore also relevant.

In my view, while there was need for reform, there is a great deal to be said in favour of LEAs. These were overseen by elected local councillors appointed to the powerful Education Committee. LEAs were led by a ‘Chief Education Officer’ or ‘Director of Education’. This post was always held by a person with professional experience at a high level in the world of education. Social Services Departments were separate, led by a Social Services Director.

Tim Brighouse was one such ‘highly able and experienced’ Director of Education of the Birmingham LEA. In Birmingham’s LEA days neither the current Anderton Park  controversy, nor the previous ‘Trojan Horse’ affair would have come about and this is why.

  1. LEAs had the power to define the ‘catchment areas’ of  their schools. The Birmingham LEA would have imposed ethnically and socially mixed catchment areas throughout the city. This power was removed by the 1988 Education Reform Act that prioritised the parental choice that has resulted in ‘white flight’ and Muslim parental domination of many schools located within particular postcodes.
  2. The Birmingham LEA had a large Education Welfare Service, which supported by the Director of Education, would have played an effective role in defusing tensions between parents and schools.

This role has been left to the local Labour MP, Roger Godsiff,  Labour MP for Birmingham Hall Green, which includes Anderton Park Primary School in Sparkhill.  Mr Godsiff has said he has “concerns” about the appropriateness of teaching children aged four and five about the existence and equality of same sex families.

It is important to point out that the law does not require LGBT issues to be taught to four and five year-old children. However, I can’t imagine any primary school head or teacher disagreeing in principle with a ‘No Outsiders’ policy. A child with ‘two mummies’ or ‘two daddies’ must feel welcomed, comfortable and supported by the school. But primary schools have long welcomed children with one mummy and no daddy, one daddy and no mummy (single parent families) and no mummy or daddy (‘looked after children), without any controversy or need for specially targeted resources. Birmingham is a huge city with an extremely diverse population. So why has this issue has become so bitter and the cause of such high levels of local anger and distress? The reported comments of most of the parents seem reasonable enough to suggest that dialogue between the parents and the head could lead to a resolution, probably around what is considered ‘age appropriate’. It is also puzzling that the Governing Body has never been mentioned in any of the media coverage of the dispute. Has the Governing Body considered this matter in accordance with the requirements of the Statutory Guidance, which states that the views of parents and the school community should be taken into account?

Perhaps the BBC can offer guidance. There are two dedicated children’s channels. CBeebies is targeted at children under six. CBBC is targeted at children from 6 – 15. ‘The Dumping Ground’ programme has included story lines about same sex relationships and gay adoption. The latter has proved to be controversial with ‘Mumsnet’. Mumsnet cannot be described as a homophobic organisation and none of the opinions expressed appear to be based on religious objections. While the issues are clearly debatable in relation to a programme on CBBC, there is surely little possibility of them ever being deemed suitable for CBeebies. This suggests that those Anderton Park parents objecting specifically about such issues being raised with four and five year-olds have a case. There are a great many other Birmingham primary schools where the majority of parents have the Muslim faith. They all appear to be coping with the new sex and relationship regulations without difficulty. As previously noted, there are organised elements of the Muslim community opposed to integration with British society that are only too ready to exploit cultural conflicts like this, which is surely a good reason for avoiding them.

On the general issue of parental rights in relation to the education of their children at school, it is a complex pattern. I argue in this article that some need strengthening (in relation to the lack of accountability of Academy schools), others need to be respected and addressed by Governing Bodies in accordance with the Statutory Guidance. And the DfE needs to tackle the issue of the proponents of exclusive religious schools exploiting the freedoms of Academy status to achieve their profoundly damaging aims.

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