An education crisis is looming, unless parents do their homework
By Simon Heffer
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 07/02/2007
Often in the past 10 years I have found myself wondering what the state imagines the point of parents to be. We all know the correct answer: parents are there to protect and provide for their children, encourage their social, moral and intellectual growth, and to prepare them to be adults who can satisfactorily bring up their own children. I very much fear, though, that that is not the Government's view at all.
My suspicions were roused, and are regularly compounded, by Gordon Brown's fiscal and economic policies. Marriage, except when deeply unhappy or abusive, is always the best context in which to raise children. Mr Brown has, however, neutralised the tax regime as it relates to marriage. Worse, he has gone to enormous lengths to encourage the creation of what has been called "the redundant male".
State childcare facilities of which the old Soviet bloc would have been proud are being developed and funded to ensure that single women can have children and carry on some sort of career without having to worry about whether a man is there to assist with these awesome tasks, or to provide any financial support for them.
On top of that the state now believes that a child brought up by two women or two men is likely to be just as well adjusted as those brought up by a man and a woman: and in this they have the explicit support of the leader of the Conservative Party. So even if the mainstream idea of what parenting is, or should be, still remains, forces are at work trying to persuade those who hold that view to change it.
The proposals just published for the new national curriculum for 11- 14-year-olds offer new evidence of the Government's writing off of the role of parents. Cristina Odone wrote on this page yesterday of her justified astonishment at the teaching of healthy eating in schools. Are schools meant for that purpose? What is the point of directing concern about a child's diet to anyone other than those who feed him or her: namely, the parents who go to Tesco each week and spend their money shopping for their children? I am sure some get it "wrong", in the eyes of the Government's official food fascists, but then parents get all sorts of things "wrong" for their children all the time.
What precedent might this set? Some permissive parents indulge their children in ways that might have worse social consequences than their being a bit lardy. So will there be lessons in schools about the dangers of addiction to computer games? Or of watching television programmes that go out after the watershed? Or of not helping your mother with the washing-up from time to time, or of not being sufficiently nice to your old grandma when she turns up at Christmas?
I am well aware that for some decades schools have taught, to an extent, non-academic subjects in the classroom that are meant mainly to help a child's social development — such as sex education. But do we really want schools to supplant entirely the role of parents — or, indeed, in many instances conflict with it — by stuffing the curriculum with matters they should learn at home?
That the Government thinks we should suggests that they are, indeed, now giving up on a whole generation of parents. The danger of that, though, is that the generation who are now being taught will emerge from the process being even more degenerate and useless when it comes to child-rearing than even their mothers and fathers were.
The trouble with schools, of course, is that one size has to fit all. Although one hears less of it these days, it was not uncommon 20 or 30 years ago for parents to demand their children be excluded from sex education classes, because families had their own way of dealing with it. We know some children are kept out of religious studies because what is taught conflicts with the faith professed at home.
In this secular age, many parents will feel as strongly about teaching "lifestyle" matters in school, such as those that might lead to little Johnnie coming home from school and lecturing his mother about the inadequacy of her behaviour on her trips to Tesco. But perhaps that is the point.
To an extent, parents have invited the state to intrude in this way. We see appalling examples of bad parenting on our streets every day. That Britain is now the most criminal place in Europe is testimony to this. So is the related fact that we have such a grotesque problem with drink and drugs (which, oddly enough, seems to worry the Government far less than youths eating too many hamburgers).
But above all — and I fear this is the great unspoken failure of many parents today — we see it in the mediocre academic attainment of too many children, in the fact that the curriculum has been dumbed down to accommodate the limited minds with which it has to engage, and in the dismal standard now required to pass a public examination. We see it in the illiteracy and innumeracy of so many young adults, in their utter lack of curiosity. We see it because many parents now think that education is something that happens only at school.
Some households contain no serious book. Children never see their parents reading. While many parents are assiduous in ensuring homework is done many, equally, are not. In the holidays, no intelligent activity ever takes place. Whether this is because of the self-obsession of a generation of parents, or because of a lack of aspiration, I do not know. But the teachers I have talked to in recent years, from both the state and the private sectors, who speak of the slowly diminishing quality of the raw materials with which they have to deal, leave me in no doubt that many parents do not keep their side of the child-raising bargain. Indeed, many appear unaware that there is a bargain at all.
We have therefore ended up with a proposed curriculum laced with healthy eating and "citizenship" classes. The second of those is something it was until recently felt entirely unnecessary to teach as it was thought to have been imbibed with one's mother's milk. Children will also be taught to work out a family's monthly spending, with lessons about a "healthy lifestyle" that will, apparently, go beyond just eating five portions of fruit and veg a day. Children will also be taught how to make an unaccompanied journey of 50 miles with one change of transport. In the margins of this there will be 10 minutes a day "drip" teaching of languages, a bit of history, maths, science and English, though with the emphasis on "projects".
It is pointless to complain about the utter lack of academic rigour in all this, since such a concept seems to have gone out of the window years ago. Were one a conspiracy theorist, one might conclude that it suits the Government very well to create such a bovine population so lacking in curiosity. Or, perhaps we must accept that schools are now designed to be expensive and inefficient child-minding operations. Their new purpose is to teach children things their parents should, and to try to engage their curiosity in the most basic fashion because many parents don't, and won't.
So perhaps we need a national curriculum for parents. Since the Government is happy to interfere in family life (or what remains of it) in every other way, this shouldn't be beyond them. It would be much better, of course, if the parents of this country realised that it might be better if they took a firmer hand themselves. Otherwise, in 20 or 30 years' time, the gap between the small, educated minority and the massive, uneducated majority will represent the greatest class divide in this country since before the 1870 Education Act, and will present our country with a social danger greater than most of us can bear to imagine.