• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Rescuing adult authority in the twenty-first century

At a conference on parenting at the British Library in London on 16 February, Professor Frank Furedi will outline how the politicisation of parenting is damaging family relations and the education system. Here he gives a preview of his comments, and his five-point programme for rescuing education from today’s meddling policymakers.

One of the most disturbing developments in British society over the past two decades has been the politicisation of parenting. Politicised parenting might be presented as a long overdue, child- and parent-friendly development, which will put right many of the problems families face. But in reality, the turn towards colonising people’s private lives is underpinned by the prejudice that virtually all of society’s problems are caused either directly or indirectly by poor parenting. All the major British political parties now hold this prejudice and have signed up to the new dogma of the ‘politics of behaviour’.

In Britain, it was Tony Blair’s regime, elected in 1997, which first promoted the fantasy that the government could fix society’s problems by getting its hands on the nation’s toddlers before their parents had a chance to ruin them. One of New Labour’s key focuses was on ‘early intervention’ – and for Blair, intervention could never be early enough. He believed it was possible to spot tomorrow’s ‘problem people’ even before they were born. Weeding out ‘unfit parents’ by imposing a kind of quality control in the arena of parenting has been a key plank of the early-intervention movement.

The agenda was has rarely been questioned. When Blair said in September 2006 that the state should spot potential problem people before birth – by intervening in problem families looking to have more children – the media and the political elite appeared to agree with him. Only a handful of politicians, labelled ‘out-of touch’ and ‘old-fashioned’, raised doubts. ‘This one about identifying troublesome children in the fetus – this is eugenics, the sort of thing Hitler talked about’, argued Tony Benn, former leader of the Labour Left.

Sadly, the myth of parental determinism has been institutionalised in Whitehall. New Labour policymakers seem to believe that the quality of parenting can determine just about everything in a child’s future; they even believe that parenting, when done well, can help to overcome society’s own structural inequalities. ‘Good parenting is crucial for children and can help them to overcome disadvantages’, argues a Green Paper published by the government last month. It is testament to the failure of the political imagination in Whitehall that parenting has become the new social policy arena.

And it isn’t only New Labour. It is becoming clear that no matter which party wins the UK General Election this year, the politicisation of parenting will triumph. Last month, Tory leader David Cameron said politicians ought to participate in a national crusade to develop parenting skills in order to build a ‘responsible society’. He said that what really determined a child’s chances in life was ‘not the wealth of their upbringing, but the warmth of their parenting’.

The idea of a one-dimensional, causal relationship between parenting and socioeconomic outcomes, dreamt up by British think-tanks and policymakers, threatens to take public discourse to a new low. In comparison with parental determinism, the economic determinism of Stalinism or the racial determinism of the old eugenics lobby seem positively subtle. The idea of parental determinism allows policymakers to promote the most absurd prejudices. Over the weekend, Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, argued that children from broken homes and dysfunctional families have underdeveloped brains and start school with the mental capacity of one-year-olds. He said that certain babies’ brains fail to grow because their parents do not offer them ‘nurture and support’.

Back in the nineteenth century, the now discredited science of phrenology linked the size of people’s brains to their personality and character. Were he around today, the idiosyncratic founder of that science, the Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall, would be the toast of the Westminster think-tank scene.

The devastating impact on education

It is in the sphere of education that we can most clearly see the destructive impact of parental determinism. As I argued in my recent book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, one of the most significant causes of the problems facing our schools is the erosion of adult responsibility and authority.

Unfortunately, today the term ‘adult responsibility’ can come across as a meaningless platitude. After all, most grown-ups have little involvement in the education of the young. Children are perceived to be the responsibility of their parents or carers at home and of their teachers at school. Indeed, adults are encouraged to keep their distance from other people’s children, and understandably draw the conclusion that what happens to young people is not really their business. But grown-ups are not just individuals: they are members of a wider world of adults. By their very existence they represent adulthood to the younger generation, and through their behaviour they send out clear signals about what we expect from children. In a very real sense, adult authority is indivisible.

The way grown-ups behave in everyday life does not go unnoticed by children as they head to school or walk to the park. If adults behave authoritatively towards youngsters at home and in their communities, it is likely that teachers will feel comfortable in exercising authority in the classroom. But if adults in general are reluctant or confused about giving guidance to the younger generation, then the challenge facing the teacher in the classroom can sometimes become overwhelming. It is hard to be the last bastion of authority in a society where adult authority seems to be crumbling.

Adults no longer take meaningful responsibility for younger generations. In March 2009, Bob Lightman, president of the UK Association of Teachers and Lecturers, complained that teachers were expected to teach children who ‘seem never to have the opportunity to have a conversation outside school with an adult’. The implication of this statement is far-reaching, because intergenerational conversations are an essential part of education. When grown-ups become disconnected from the young, they cease to play an adult role. Adults are not simply biologically mature individuals. Although the state and quality of being an adult can vary greatly from one individual and one society to another, a real sense of adulthood is developed and clarified through adults’ relationships with the young.

When it comes to education, ideas about adult responsibility tend to be expressed in a one-sided and negative way today. In the many heated debates about schooling, both sides are happy to criticise parents or teachers, or both, for their ‘irresponsible’ behaviour. But such criticisms are often motivated by a desire to score some political points and avoid blame. Typically parents are called upon to ‘get involved’ and to help the school to do its job of educating the next generation, and such exhortations often express a sense of disdain for parents. ‘It’s no good blaming schools for deteriorating behaviour among young people when parents all too often set such an appalling example themselves’, says Tim Collins, a former Tory spokesman on education. Here, censuring parents is a way of avoiding the larger problem of failing schools or our ill-thought-through education system. Ed Balls, the New Labour secretary of state for children, schools and families, takes a similar view to Collins, arguing that ‘parents should face up to their responsibilities’ and possibly be penalised if they don’t.

While some cast parents as the villains of the education drama, others look at them as the saviours of education. In August 2008, when he was a UK education minister, Lord Adonis said we need more ‘pushy parents’ to help to force poor state schools to improve. In March 2009, the New Labour government unveiled a scheme that would allow parents and pupils to use ‘satisfaction ratings’ to grade their schools. The call for more parental intervention in education is likely to exacerbate the tendency for parents to vent their frustration on their children’s schools, thus deepening some of the tensions in adult society without doing anything to improve the quality of schooling.

Education is a generational responsibility that cannot, and should not, be outsourced to a particular group of individuals. Of course, the ideal of a generational transaction of knowledge has never been fully realised. In previous times it was often undermined by conflicts of culture, religion, class and social interests. Today, matters are made far worse by policies promoting parental determinism. Parents are encouraged to live through their children’s education and become emotionally engaged with the minutiae of what takes place in the classroom.

What we end up with is a highly individualised free-for-all, where parents are effectively encouraged to fend for themselves and their own children’s education and to pursue their private interests. Indeed, political parties are at the forefront of demanding a greater role for parental pressure in education – without being in the slightest bit aware of the damage they are doing when they try to compensate for the weaknesses of schooling by mobilising parental anxieties.

The involvement of mothers and fathers in the business of schools intensifies petty squabbles and conflict between parents and between parents and teachers. It empties the ideal of adult responsibility of real meaning, and actually damages the institution of education. The five-point programme outlined below is my attempt to alter the relationship between parents and the classroom, to counter the damaging impact of parental determinism on schooling, and to confront the real problems facing education today.

A five-point programme on education

Education is considered one of the key issues in the pre-General Election debate. Parents, teachers and members of the public are deeply concerned with the problems afflicting our schools. Lack of clarity about standards, problems of classroom discipline, continuous changes to the curriculum and system of examination are just some of the issues raised in public debates. Unfortunately, however, some of the really big questions facing schools are seldom considered. We only rarely discuss issues such as the role of adult authority and policymakers, and what education should mean. If schools are to prosper, we need to alter the relationship between policymaking and education, teacher and parent, and adults and children. So, what needs to be done?

1. Take politics out of education

Policymakers should stop fiddling with the curriculum if they want to improve schooling. In fact, schools should be insulated from the influence of policymakers. Ceaseless interference in the curriculum has encouraged an atmosphere of instability in the classroom. Education needs more stability and classrooms must be freed from bureaucratic micro- management. Education should be ‘de-politicised’, with teachers freed from government initiatives in order that they can focus on educating.

2. Rethink the relationship between parents and teachers

At present, the line between home and school and parent and teacher is drawn poorly. Parents are expected to behave as amateur tutors and to involve themselves in their children’s schooling. In turn, teachers spend far too much time acting as social workers or psychologists, trying to deal with issues that are best confronted in the home. This is not only a waste of time – it encourages tension and conflict between parents and teachers. There is a difference between raising children and educating them, and this distinction must be re-established to allow for a clearer and more constructive relationship between parents and teachers.

3. Stand up for adult authority

Adult authority, in and out of the classroom, must be affirmed in order to provide a sturdy foundation for education. At present, the authority of parents and teachers over children receives little cultural affirmation. Yet to teach effectively in schools, teachers must exercise authority in a manner that is unambiguous and clearly understood by their pupils. Parents need to understand this, and support it.

4. Education must be independent and diverse

Although schools are part of a community, they must be left to teach what must be taught, without the distractions of outside pressures. We need a tolerant and open-minded ethos towards education, not a prescriptive approach towards schooling that restrains teachers’ initiative and ambition. Within a national curriculum, schools can flourish if their teachers and heads have sufficient independence to exercise professional judgment and to work out strategies appropriate to their circumstances. It is legitimate for central government to outline a basic common curriculum through which children gain access to their rightful intellectual inheritance – but how that curriculum is taught is best decided by local schools and communities.

5. Value education for its own sake

Sadly, education tends to be seen as ‘a means to an end’ these days, an instrument for the realisation of an objective that is external to itself. Yet education cannot flourish if it is not valued for its own sake. A principal characteristic of education is its lack of interest in an ulterior purpose. For example, abstract philosophical thought, literary comprehension and an understanding of numerical principles are part of our human legacy and not just skills to help us function in the world. Teachers who understand and embrace this are more likely to inspire their pupils and address their individual specific educational needs. Education works when we see it as important in its own right, and when children are taught to value learning for its own sake.

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