Tuesday, 28 June 2011

school's out (for, um, not sure how long)

LATELY I have been having a recurrent nightmare, which always wakes me in a cold sweat. It is that I've muddled up the dates for the forthcoming home visit from my son's prospective new teacher, and she's caught us not in the middle of some unconvincingly staged wholesome family activity but slumped in our pyjamas in front of Scooby Doo. I think it's still a few days away. But I've got the alphabet jigsaw out just in case.
Everyone I know with children starting state primary schools this September is currently facing the same ritual, although nobody seems really to know what it's for, except that it clearly involves frantic prior hoovering. 'I think it's basically a test of how middle class you are,' says a friend who's already had hers, rather vaguely.
But along with the myriad other invitations to come into lessons or spend a morning in school, it's presumably part of a laudable effort to familiarise small children with school. I love that they take so much care over the transition: I'm intensely relieved that they ease the children in gently, so that it's nearly the end of September before they actually stay a whole day.
But then it's easy for me to be relieved when I work flexibly from home. If I was still working full-time in an office, I'd be panicking about how to fit even this preparatory stuff in - never mind the endless guilt-inducing demands once school starts for parents to chaperone trips, read to the children, come in for sharing assemblies. Children love it when their parents come into school, and it's right that schools should encourage parental involvement when research suggests it's critical to children's success. But where, exactly, do we draw the line? What is it fair to expect of parents who need to work, and how much responsibility is it fair to dump onto teachers? Do teachers have a responsibility to help adult lives run smoothly, or to insist on what may work inconveniently best for children?
The recent row over homework, started by the TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp complaining that working mothers shouldn't have to spend scarce time with their children nagging them about spellings, went right to the heart of this same argument. She clearly struck a chord with many parents: but should teachers have to worry about the quality of children's family lives, or is that a problem for parents to sort out? The lines between parent and teacher are becoming uncomfortably blurred, and I suspect they're only going to get more so after tomorrow's teachers' strike.
The education secretary, Michael Gove, is painting it as a battle between supposedly selfish teachers and harassed working mothers forced to scratch around for childcare. But polling suggests it's not that simple, with around four in ten Britons (even among 30 to 50-year-olds, the age group most likely to be parents) supporting the action: they can't all be freelancers who can get away with having Thursday off.
Attitudes will probably harden if industrial action continues, of course. But whether or not this strike is resolved quickly, I think we're left with some big questions about where the balance of responsibility lies between teachers and parents.