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Are we surrogate parents?

By 19 April 2012No Comments

‘Schools forced to act as surrogate parents,’ screamed the headline.  It certainly grabbed my attention.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, OFSTED’s chief inspector, stated that schools spend significant time instilling basic values because children are not taught these at home.  Schools, particularly in poor areas, had no option but to be surrogate parents so that children can achieve and compensate for wider family and community failings.
It is undoubtedly the case, compared to fifty years ago, that there are more working mothers.  Consequently, public expectations of schools have changed.  Kids spend less time at home and more in school.  To that limited extent teachers become surrogate parents.
More significantly, perhaps, with the traditional nuclear family’s gradual weakening, a considerable minority of young people live chaotic lifes, bereft of care, let alone ethical guidance.  If that’s what was meant by schools setting standards where few existed at home, fine.
Part of the role of schools, certainly, is to model courtesy and consideration and offer young people moral leadership but that has always been the case.  My former school took enormous pride in the compliments our youngsters were paid by visitors for their courtesy and helpfulness.  We achieved that by prioritising it and by staff modelling it but schools have done that from time immemorial.
What is far more questionable is the assertion that it is in poor areas that schools must act as surrogate parents.  The clear implication is that the poor are feckless, inadequate parents.  Such a generalisation entirely avoids the fact that many of the parents who have least time for their children, who require schools (or sports clubs or dance classes or scouts or whatever) to act as surrogate parents are as likely to be the career-driven, time-pressured, middle-classes as the ‘feckless poor’.  And how does Sir Michael judge those affluent families which send their children to boarding school?  By his yardstick, their abdication of parental responsibilities must be at the very worst end of the scale.
Where Sir Michael almost hit nails on heads however, is his identification of the wider social malaise, a culture emphasising “celebrity and instant gratification”, impacting directly on young people.  “Our youngsters are too often exposed to double standards, where bad behaviour and violence are publicly condemned but endlessly available as entertainment.”
We live indeed in a bread-and-circuses culture.  Politicians make fools of themselves on Big Brother.  Celebrities (of very minor status) demean themselves and each other in the jungle.  Newspapers entertain readers and reinforce their self-righteousness with prurient headlines and titillating stories of celebrity misdemeanours.

The above article was first published in SecEd on 19 April 2012 (page 8):

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