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Education Matters: Parents in Suffolk must do better, says the PM

PUBLISHED: 13:20 22 January 2016 | UPDATED: 13:20 22 January 2016

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons

Last week the Prime Minister turned his attention to parents. It seems we need to do better, writes Geoff Barton.

His speech surprised some commentators who – perhaps a little snidely – reminded us that in June 2012 David Cameron departed from a Cotswolds pub and accidentally left behind his daughter behind. She was apparently on her own for fifteen minutes.

How, ask the Prime Minister’s critics, can he possibly be qualified to issue exhortations to the rest of us on being better parents?

To my mind this is cheap point-scoring, and I’m sure the Education Secretary would claim that being briefly abandoned in the relatively safe environment of a public house might actually be considered character-forming.

Be that as it may, the Prime Minister is right to reassert the importance of parenting. The influence of a parent will almost always outweigh the impact we can have as teachers.

That means building the right habits and attitudes at home, such as resilience not to give up when things are difficult, being able to interact harmoniously with other children and adults, developing language skills and, critically, having an ability and desire to read.

In his speech the Prime Minister proclaimed that his government would demolish 100 ‘sink estates’, introduce parenting classes for mums and dads, and provide better mental health provision. There was an acknowledgement here which we haven’t heard so clearly articulated before by this government. Evidently our backgrounds – how we are brought up – influence who we become.

Parents are therefore the pilots of their children’s destinies. We provide the essential starting-points, and the moral compass, for young people’s journey through childhood towards independence.

It is a responsibility that, as parents, we forget at our peril.

After 30 years as a teacher and headteacher, I sense that most parents are fully aware of this. I meet very few who don’t want their children to be happy, healthy and successful.

But how do we best contribute to this? In a period of bewildering social and technological change we aren’t always sure as parents what we ought to be doing. So here are my two suggestions of what seems to make the biggest impact on the mental, social and educational wellbeing of the children I see.

From where I sit, family life has become fragmented. You only have to watch a family visit to a restaurant to see each member locked onto a different screen, their thoughts and feelings directed at people and ideas that aren’t in the same room.

Experience and literacy-based research tells me that social interaction – conversation – is a key ingredient in a child’s development. It’s why food and eating together should be central, even if it’s just a once-a-week screen-free Sunday lunch at home at which every family member has a chance to talk about the week that’s just gone and the week that lies ahead.

As parents, giving our children free rein to interact with us as adults, to take part in conversations, to listen, to argue – all of these are building essential skills for life.

My second observation is simpler. Let’s remember that we are parents, not friends, to our children. In a world where they are bombarded with messages about being independent, being cool, being popular, they need us more than ever to set ground-rules.

That means saying no as well as saying yes. It means building respect for authority. It means having some non-negotiable boundaries over bedtimes, time on the computer, time out with friends.

It might be that in our schools we could explore some of these issues, asking parents with older teenagers to talk to parents with toddlers and pre-teens about where they feel they got it right and wrong.

After all, no one trains us to be parents and it’s a role with a heavy responsibility. It might just be that in schools we are ideally placed to help parents to learn more about a role which brings so much joy alongside occasional anxieties.

Let’s start sharing what we’ve learnt. And schools are surely best placed for anything that involves learning.

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