It is in the nature of things that the pendulum should swing. It’s even in the nature of things that the pendulum, when seeking to correct a previous overswing, goes back too far in the other direction.
It can seem like that in the field of education. Many older people today can well remember how strict their schooldays could be: from top public schools’ frequent use of the cane to national primary schools meting out tough punishments
to children who erred or misbehaved.
And it’s a common recollection that the parental view of school punishment was that “if you were punished, you must have deserved it”. Some can remember being punished again by their parents, just for having been punished at school.
Now the pendulum has swung, and teachers are concerned that it has gone way too far in the other direction. If a youngster is reprimanded at school today, or told to obey the rules, some parents start dishing out abuse, foul language and, in a few cases, threats of violence against the teachers – for daring to correct their precious little sprog.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, as well as Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has criticised the “abusive and vindictive behaviour” towards school teachers from some parents. The National Association of Head Teachers has cited examples of parents threatening to kill teachers, of coming at them with an axe, as well as repeatedly using foul-mouthed language.
Alison Colwell, who turned around a Kent school, Ebbsfleet Academy, but maintained some strict rules about uniform and conduct, is stepping down. After years of clashes with parents, she’s announced that she is leaving the country, to take up a headship at an international school abroad. Sir Michael has suggested that many other teachers may well follow the same course.
What is the reason for this bad parental behaviour? First, I’d guess, it is the corrective factor – social mores swinging away from more regimented school regimes of old. And we live in a more self-centred world, where there is more emphasis on “rights” and entitlements.
Much smaller families may also play a part. When parents had five or six kids to raise and get organised, there had to be some discipline, and some source of authority. Today, with the two-child or one-child family, parents may be more inclined to think that their little princess or princeling, so carefully chosen, is absolutely perfect and beyond the reach of anyone’s reprimands.
Eventually, of course, the pendulum will swing back.
A few years ago, an Australian poet came to visit our town and speak about his poetry. He was so unassuming, and dressed so indifferently, even shabbily, that he seemed more like a down-at-heel travelling labourer.
Actually, he is widely regarded as the best Australian poet of his generation, and one of the finest poets in the world. Les Murray has just died, aged 80, greatly acclaimed, especially for his celebration of the lives of Australia’s rural poor.
He had a hard early life himself, his mother dying from a miscarriage when he was 12. As an adult, Murray converted to Catholicism, which helped him cope with the “dark shadows” that he felt, and that are often part of the human psyche. He was also drawn by the “spirit of forgiveness” in the Catholic faith.
A friend has drawn attention to a great poem he wrote called “Dog Fox Field” and the story behind it. These words were used as a test for “feeble-mindedness” in Nazi Germany, whereby children who could not compose a sentence using those three words were exterminated. “Dog Fox Field” is now seen as alerting us to the rash judgments made of Down’s syndrome youngsters.
This subtle and compassionate poem can be read at the Australian Poetry Library online (poetrylibrary.edu.au).
Now that Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, a proclaimed feminist, is the mother of a son, she may come to see that the world isn’t always fair on men – and boys growing up have their struggles too. Perhaps she may even come to feel more forgiving, and understanding, of the father from whom she has lately been estranged.
Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4
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