When parents turn nasty


A trip away to a headteachers' conference left Marion Gibbs musing on the impact that parents can have on both their children's education and their children's teachers.

I have been away at a heads’ conference for a few days where the majority of the presentations, workshops and speakers were concerned with creativity and innovation and the use of mobile learning platforms by our students.

We also discussed the EBC (the name for the new key stage 4 English Baccalaureate Certificate, I discover) and the proposed A level changes, but it was good to be able to focus on ways of learning and teaching, not just on exams.

It may come as no surprise that in the breaks and over meals, fellow heads were also expressing anxiety about the increasing amount of time we are all spending on dealing with parental complaints and threats of litigation.

Never before have so many requests been made for re-marks in public examinations, following the immense publicity given this summer to the unreliability of marking. But it is not just exam results which are giving rise to challenge in both state and independent schools, parents and students have generally become far quicker to complain about teaching, provision and other aspects of school life.

One of the speakers discussed the reluctance of some modern parents to accept that their offspring might fail (or at least not meet the expectations which they had established for them) and how they seek to blame someone else. It is the school or the teacher who is very often held responsible, not the students themselves, and this mind-set is now being transferred to university education as high fees lead to a more consumer-like approach.

Of course, in some schools, staff despair at the lack of ambition of parents for their offspring and their reluctance to engage with their child’s education. In the independent sector, we often meet the other extreme, and it is becoming increasingly common in the maintained sector.

The use of modern technology has opened up whole new areas for airing complaints, followed perhaps by litigation. The recent prosecution of Twitter users has caused surprise in some quarters. Interestingly, a recent survey suggested that very high numbers of schools and teachers suffer abuse on the internet, many of the abusers being parents rather than pupils, but it has been difficult to take such abuse off-air or to prosecute those involved.

The internet has been seen as a place of total freedom of speech, often under a cloak of anonymity.  We are making more and more use of ICT in schools and it is becoming as integral to learning and teaching as it is to many people’s social life, but the conventions and well-established codes of practice for the written and spoken word have not been thought to apply in quite the same way. Is that now changing? Will people now pause for thought before they press the send button on an abusive or unfairly critical email? Will people start taking responsibility for what they write and publish about others via text messages, BBM, email or on social media sites? Can the genie ever be put back in the bottle?

As we discussed at the conference, modern technology has huge potential for developing learning in many innovative and very effective ways. However, it is also many people’s preferred method of transmitting mockery, unkindness, criticism and for spreading gossip and once something has been “posted” or “shared” it is very hard to retract.

So, I am facing a dilemma – I abhor our quick to complain, always ready to blame others, over-litigious, compensation culture, but I am also very attracted to the idea of those who make use of technology to make defamatory remarks about others being faced with litigation and demands for compensation! If only everyone actually put into practice the advice many heads convey in assemblies and student meetings: it is not true that words cannot hurt you, they do and they are rarely forgotten.

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.


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