It’s not often that my jaw hits the floor these days. I feel like I’m often existing in some bizarre Orwellian nightmare when I listen to the pronouncements of the great and good. Let’s face it, when people vote for Boris Johnson in large numbers (because they think a public school educated bigot acting the clown is funny?) the world can’t get much stranger. But, today, this little gem (sorry links not working) http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7381817.stm caught my eye on the BBC website.
Can others see the inherent contradictions here? First, Clarissa Williams criticises the push to get all children into early years settings asap and says,
“Are parents so distrusted that we want to separate them from their children at the earliest opportunity?"
I was rather pleased to hear someone so far on the inside of the system say something so sensible. But then she goes on to propose that people’s benefit levels should be affected by whether or not they “engage with schools”. It seems she can’t quite let go of the distrust herself. Patronising is the word that springs to mind. Would she like star charts down at the benefit office too?
Like Ms Williams, I dislike the punitive attitudes of councils who jail the parents of truanting children, and so on. But, unlike Ms Williams, I don’t favour an approach that seeks to replace the stick with a carrot. I know that it is unfashionable to say it, but when it comes to the welfare of their children, people are best motivated by their love for their children. They don’t need slapped wrists or extra pocket money. They need a system that respects their relationships and stops lecturing long enough to listen to what people actually say they need and want.
It seems to me that, deep within our culture these days, is an unshakeable idea that we are consumers. The rhetoric is all about participation but, when you dig a little, it is clear that you are meant to shut up and ‘engage with’ what is doled out, with a happy smile and a thank you. Public services should be just that – services that belong to us all. They never are. Sometimes people manage to access a bit of funding to get some, genuinely participatory, project off the ground but it is always a struggle. I encountered that when D and I were volunteers at the local Breastfeed Drop-in. At the time there were funds aplenty for Sure Start initiatives but this, well-established, peer to peer support project, was always in financial crisis. Running costs were very low but it seemed that, unless you were operating under the umbrella of the ‘good thing’ that was Sure Start, then you had to be constantly seeking new sources of funding and spending hours of volunteer time on filling in grant applications. You’re really not meant to do it yourselves - just turn up at the approved venue and get your services as they see fit.
This is, it seems to me, the key to understanding the state education system. It was why it always felt so hard to influence anything when we were parents of a school child. We were meant to be constantly grateful for everything (not that I’m against gratitude to individuals who do a good job) but never question. We did our best and were just the sort of ‘engaged’ parents that Ms Williams wants. We helped out in the classroom, washed paint pots, read with ‘slow readers’ and all that stuff. I can remember taking down Santa’s grotto well into the evening, after the Christmas fair. But, that really wasn’t participation. We could raise the money for play equipment but still had to abide by every edict without question. One day it was decreed that parents could no longer take their children to the classroom at the start of the day. Children had to be handed over to their teacher in the playground. Teaching assistants were posted, like bouncers, on the doors. I had to fight my way in to help my five year old out of her waterproof trousers, because no-one else was doing it and I could see her mounting panic and distress. That just made me a ‘naughty mummy’ and, no doubt, I would have been docked some of my golden time. You must be ‘engaged’ it seems, just how and when the PTB want you.
The truth, I suspect, behind Ms Williams bright idea is that she has a nice little stereotype in mind of the kind of parents who need to be motivated with extra benefit payments. They’re nothing like her, or her friends, of course. People ‘like her’ just do the right thing because they are socially responsible and mature and have their children’s best interests at heart. It is all about us and them, isn’t it? People like ‘them’ need bribes. I’m surprised she didn’t suggest free scratch cards. But, it’s all the rage at the moment, this sort of idea. Where we live, primary school children’s names are entered in a lottery for a new bike – if they achieve 100% attendance at school. Quite apart from the inherently unpleasant notion that being ill or unable to attend school is always a BAD thing (what about children with serious health problems who will never get entered in the lottery?) the whole scheme is aimed squarely at certain ‘types’ of school where attendance is a ‘problem’. It’s also aimed, rather transparently, at children who don’t already have a nice bike – or whatever the bribe may be. You can read between the lines. Just like we can read between the lines of what Ms Williams is proposing.
The state education system is clearly about ensuring compliance – far more than it is about education. But what is particularly scary about Ms Williams’ idea is the ease with which people now accept that ‘the state,’ acting as a single entity, should be able tweak the lives of individuals to suit a current political/ideological goal. Benefit payments should be about ensuring the basics of life to everyone in our society, not a means by which the state can make people jump through hoops. YUK.