Not Saussure

December 3, 2006

Home school contracts revisited

Filed under: Community, Education — notsaussure @ 6:15 pm

In a comment to my piece yesterday about Sign Up or We’ll Prosecute You, about a proposal to insist on parents signing home-school contracts before they can discharge their legal obligation to secure education for their children, at least in the state sector, ‘alabastercodify’ writes

I have as great a horror of Blair’s conception of the state/individual relationship as anyone. And NS’s, Nosemonkey’s et al’s dissection of these suggestion’s are compelling.

But I think it is fair to say that perhaps Blair is simply trying, tho in a typically wrongheaded manner, to repair some unintended consequences of the welfare state.

In a welfare state there must be a change in the relationship one has to the state; this is a common feature of rightish thought – the fact that it engenders dependancy and that it infantalises those who are the recipient of state aid which is automatic and divorced from duties – the culture of “I know my rights”.

The fact that for a sizeable minority of parents one finds some unwilling and some unable to make their children attend the schools for which they neither pay nor have to qualify for in any way is surely one symptom. Hence I take it Higham’s note of the fact truancy is rare at private schools.

This is not really to say much beyond commonplaces of course. But I would be fascinated to hear NS’s suggestions instead for dealing with the problem. I do not wish to slur you for one moment as an ivory tower merchant; I simply say that Blair has seen that there really are people who do not concieve of themselves as having real responsibility for their children, and that somehow they must be made to.

For my part I would favour vouchers for things like education, more support for marriage (tho it is v interesting that the murderers of Tom Ap rhys price both had a lot of contact with their fathers and the church -such things are not perhaps the panacea the Mail would have us think they are), and less regressive benefits. But given that most of these measures are unpopular, and that there’s no one on the scene who looks like they could make them so, and given furthermore that the situation is urgent and requires action now, could one say that more immediate, and even draconian, measures should be tried?

He goes on to ask in a subsequent post,

in our welfare state, where the state acts in loco parentis, and a particularly partial and shortsighted parent at that, do we not need some kind of recognisable contract?

Very good questions, and I’m using a post to give myself room to answer them as best I can. I say, ‘as best I can,’ because I know very little about teaching in schools, or how to run them, and I’d have thought teachers and teachers are the people best placed to address questions about how you get children to attend school, do their homework and generally behave themselves, and how best you enlist the cooperation of their parents in all this.

I certainly wouldn’t assume that a politic an whose knowledge such matters, as far as I can tell, is derived from his own experiences as pupil, be it at Fettes, Eton or wherever — and arranging for his own children’s education has any greater insights than does any other parent. My aged ma, a former teacher and educational psychologist, sometimes remarks on how odd it is that, because everyone’s been to school they think they know how to teach while, despite the fact that we also all use shops and banks, we wouldn’t necessarily think ourselves qualified, at least without training and experience, to run a branch of Azda or Barclay’s. We know whether people running shops and banks are doing a good job or not — whether we’re satisfied with the service they provide — but we don’t necessarily pretend to know how they should go about achieving better results and more satisfied customers and shareholders.

To my mind, the sensible question isn’t ‘Why are children not attending school, or why are they truanting?’; it’s ‘Why’s this particular child truanting?’ Well, there are no end of possible reasons — he’s maybe an idle little sod who’d rather hang around with his mates at the shopping centre, or he’s maybe being bullied at school and is trying to avoid the bullies, or he’s bored stiff with geography so he always bunks off afternoons when there’s double geography, or there are problems at home that are causing, directly or indirectly, his sporadic attendance… . These are all questions that can only be addressed by the individual school of the individual child and his parents; they can’t be solved by a politician, no matter how well informed, issuing a set of instructions or gimmick policies.

Yes, certainly, parents need to be involved in their children’s education and to cooperate with the school. Not, normally, a problem, as alabastercodify suggests, at private schools; pretty much by definition, I’d have thought, a parent whose prepared to pay not inconsiderable sums of money on his child’s education is usually going to be reasonably committed to working with the school to ensure his child benefits from all this. He can see the point of cooperating with the school; and, even if he’s not that interested — as was a chap for whom my late wife used to work — and just wants to get his pleasant enough, though rather dim, handful of a daughter out his hair and to emerge at the end of the process with some half-way respectable GCSEs and knowing how to behave in company, well, there are plenty of schools that will do that for you, and a very good job they’ll do, too.

The other advantage, of course, that the independent sector enjoys is that it can pick the pupils and parents and can, consequently, avoid many problems. That’s sometimes deployed as an argument about the unfairness of private education, of course; to my mind, though, it’s more of an argument against comparing the two sectors since they’re structurally different.

What, though, is to be done by the state sector to involve parents in their children’s education? Well, most parents are — at least, I think they are — perfectly willing to be thus involved. These ‘contracts’, so called, are just a meaningless bit of paper most cases. The question is, rather, how does the school involve parents who don’t seem particularly interested in cooperating. Well, again, that’s more a problem to be solved by the school rather than central government, since central government don’t know any of the parties involved; when I’m trying to persuade someone to do something, I try to consider what combination of reason, blandishments and menaces I — as an individual — can most effectively and credibly deploy on him, another individual. Politicians, by the nature of their job, tend to forget this, I think; they’re more used to trying to persuade large numbers of people — sections of the electorate — to respond to them. That’s all well and good, but in the context we’re discussing, they ought to be thinking about how they’d persuade one of their less cooperative colleagues to do something he’s not at the moment doing and that they think he should. Having a ‘contract’, or even an agreement struck in an Islington restaurant, doesn’t always work in those circumstances.

These ‘contracts’, I fear, will be of only very marginal use. Doubtless they will remind some people of their responsibilities, but what of the rest? Their main use, it seems to me, will be to make it easier for schools, worried about their ratings in league tables and the like, to hit some of these ubiquitous government targets by excluding pupils whose attendance and performance hinder them in these goals.

And the beauty of it is, it’ll be the parents’ fault rather than the school’s; it beggars credulity that any government concerned to take credit for raising educational performance while escaping blame for failing so to do, or that any school (ditto), would, given the opportunity to draft a ‘contract’ that the other party can take or be prosecuted for leaving unless they’ve got the financial resources to make other arrangements, not draw up a somewhat one-sided document. Head teachers are only human, after all, and their career prospects, performance-related pay and whatever depend on how well they do in meeting their targets. So, too, does the attractiveness of the school to parents thinking about where to send their children to school.

Given an opportunity like that, it’s obvious where you’re going to protect yourself as much as possible when drafting this contract or agreement. Were the parents to follow what’s normally considered prudent procedure before entering into a long-term, legally-binding document, they — or their professional advisors — might want to insert some clauses about remedies in case of the school’s, or even individual teachers’, failures. I doubt these contracts are going to be up for negotiation, though, and who wants to sit down and get all legalistic with the school — until something goes wrong, that is, and the school wishes to exclude little Johnnie because of what it claims are your failures but you think it’s because the school’s worried about admitting it’s got a problem with bullying and racial abuse and that’s why ?

I don’t think this is a problem that’s susceptible of solution, in the sense that government can take any particular measures to reduce truancy or make parents help children with their homework. It’s a problem best addressed by the schools, who would, I suspect, best assisted if they were left to get on with doing their job rather than finding themselves constantly inundated with circulars and advice from the Department of Education and given dozens for forms to fill in so that how well they’re following this advice can be assessed.

To my mind, the problem is, as in so many things, that oppositions think — doubtless with the best of motives and perfectly sincerely — that here’s a problem we can solve if only we set our minds to it, and anyway we can berate the government for their failure to solve it. The opposition eventually get in, with a whopping majority, and set about ‘solving’ the problem and taking the credit for so doing. But it doesn’t get ‘solved’, no matter how many initiatives and monitoring procedures and interventions the government launches. It’s not because there’s anything necessarily wrong with the government’s solutions; doubtless they do much good in many cases. But the problem really is that people don’t always behave as you’d like them to.

Then the government launches an initiative to deal with the ‘people not behaving the way we’d want them to problem’, as well, and that’s when we really do start to run into problems. We’ve got the criminal law to deal with people who behave as we really don’t want them to, but that isn’t really what’s needed. So we invent ASBOs to deal with the complaint of the Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale,

I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting

and still they carry on doing it, so we start dealing with the ‘problem’ of their parents, predicting when problems are likely to occur and intervening to prevent them. To my mind, government should accept a far more modest role, accept the fact that people as they are and deal with that rather than try to make them better people (even though it would make everyone’s life a lot easier if they were better people).

Alabastercodify says, quite rightly, that it’s a commonplace (at least in some quarters) that the Welfare State ‘engenders dependancy and that it infantalises those who are the recipient of state aid.’ To my mind, there’s a far more sinister form of dependency and infantilisation — depending on the state to make problems go away, rather as a child wants mummy to ‘make it all all right again’. Let schools get on with teaching and with doing the best they can with the actual individual children of actual individual families. They won’t be able to get it right all the time, and, tragically, many children will fail to reach their potential. But such is life, I fear; it always has been, and it’s mere hubris to think central government can do much about it.

When it comes down to it, who do you think is going to be more help to a troubled or difficult child, caring and professional teachers and head teachers who know the child and its circumstances and are left to get on with their jobs, or a politician? If the school thinks a home-school contract’s a good idea for a particular child, then by all means give it a shot for that particular child. If not, then let them try whatever else seems best.

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1 Comment »

  1. Thanks a lot for the long answer.

    On the subject of schools being the best placed to sort out such problems, I would have expected that Gov or LEAs would have had little if any involvement in such a contract, and that it would be overseen by the schools themselves anyway. But as you rightly point out, that is no better. Your predictions of how any such contract would work in practice, especially as it relates to schools using it to exclude unruly pupils to boost league tables, ring all too true; I had certainly not thought the implications of it through in such a practical way. My first error was to think of such contracts in an ideal world – no league tables, fewer exams, less venal heads etc. More fool me (I am still only young – much to learn).

    To move away from such specifics tho, what I was getting at more was the nature of social contracts in a welfare state in the abstract. Both Blair and Cameron have taken flak on blogs for raising such points recently. But it seems to me that in a welfare state the nature of such contracts manifestly does change, and although you are no doubt right to say that when those two do bring this up it is as a gimmick, the point is still valid.

    You raise it when you note how, increasingly, criminal and social policy interact, via ASBOs. But is this not a feature of the welfare state? When the state has taken responsibility for you, eg in the way it dictates what sort of education you will receive, with little reference to your parents, then your behaviour becomes a matter of social policy. You say that it is another type of infantilism to think that the state can make everything all right, even the events of each household. But this is what the state today believes it can do, and many people seem to agree.
    Young men now behave much the same as those the shepherd complains of. But now the state will subsidise their actions. Girls will always get pregnant, and young men will always leave them in the lurch. Do we accept that such is the case, and give single mothers preferential housing? Does this encourage them to ignore the consequences of their own actions? Would they be more careful, and would young men be forced to be more responsible, if they had to live with their parents instead?

    I do not think this is merely a matter of “it’s our hard earned money”… the state now sees itself as having responsibility for such people. How then are such people to view their relationship with that state?

    My original questions to you were rather muddled, and I had not thought through what I really meant. The point I was trying to get across when mentioning my preferred solutions was unclear, on the page and in my mind. I do not believe that such social contracts are the way forward – on the issue of single mothers, for example, how could one possibly say that one has a responsibility to the state not to become pregnant? But I think that there is a sense in which they are a logical conclusion to the welfare state, as it exists in this country. If the state will see itself as the provider and subsidiser, then it will increasingly require such measures as contracts, both specific and abstract. And if the people are content to see it as that, then they will increasingly have to put up with such contracts. And it is astonishing to what extent the British do want to see the state as these things. Other European countries, far more social democratic than us, think it fine to have health insurance systems – but in Britain the NHS is sacred. In many European countries school vouchers of one sort or another are common – in Britain even Thatcher didn’t introduce them and now they are off the agenda altogether. The amazing thing about ASBOs and ID cards is how many people are in favour of them – ditto CCTV. In the US it was Clinton, not a republican, who shook up benefit and got millions back into work – who is proposing such measures here? If we are to have such an extensive and intrusive welfare state, then let’s have it on a proper basis so we all know where we stand. Better to properly reform it, but if not…

    Comment by alabastercodify — December 5, 2006 @ 10:54 pm

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