All about the parents?

I’m afraid it’s Jamie’s dream School again this week, so for those who are bored of my rantings about this particular piece of water-cooler TV, there’s no need to read on any further. The programme has turned out pretty much as expected, and I’m not surprised that the star of the show is David Starkey, a man who looks and acts more like his ‘dead ringers’ cariacature every time he appears. Watching him, kid gloves and all, handling the Staffordshire hoard like a newborn child was to observe someone totally in love with his subject; he then looks expectantly up at the class of brats in front of him, only to note the look of total disgust on their faces. This was sad, though hardly unexpected. He’d have been better off unveiling a bottle of 20/20, which would at least have gotten their attention.

But I’ve already said enough about the failings of the programme. I’m more interested in the enormous elephant in the classroom that seems to be continually ignored by Jamie, and all involved with dream School. We are told that these pupils have been failed by ‘the system’. We’re never quite told what ‘the system’ is, only that it has failed these children. The reasoning goes thus:

1. The pupils all have no GCSE qualifications.

2. The pupils are clearly quite clever.

3. Therefore, the teaching they received was not good enough. They weren’t engaged, enthused or educated.

Conclusion: the pupils have been failed by their Schools, and by their teachers within those Schools.

I’m sure there’s some truth in this, but here’s an inescapable truth: there are good teachers in every School and there are bad teachers in every School. It’s true that teacher effects dwaf whole School effects, such that you are far better off having the best teacher in a lousy School than having a feeble teacher in a superb establishment. But clearly these pupils haven’t just had the bad teachers. The main problem with them is that they are unteachable. They are feral. They have never been taught how to behave. The general rules of life do not apply to these pupils. And whose fault is this? I’d absolve the pupils from blame, just as one absolves a non-housetrained dog from peeing on the carpet; it simply doesn’t know any better. Surely the majority of fault lies with the parents?

Malcolm Gladwell notes that pupils at high-achieving Schools don’t actually outstrip pupils at low achieving Schools by that much during term time i.e. the time that they actually spend at School. Instead, their education develops far more during the holidays, and this is where they move ahead of the low achieving pupils. During this time they are encouraged to read by their parents, to take an interest in sport, music, film, theatre, to debate, discuss and to challenge the world around them. They are not allowed to spend long days on the xbox and eating junk food. This is a generalisation of course, but it’s the general point I wish to make.

On this week’s episode, we were told that one of the pupils had grown up without a dad, had been kicked out by his mother and was living in a council flat on his own. The only time we were treated to a look inside, he was getting hammered with his mates on what looked like cheap schnapps. Failed by the system? Only if the system gave birth to him.

We can talk all we like about what needs to change with education, from curriculum reform and studying Latin (Toby Young) to discipline in the classroom (Katharine Birbalsingh), but why do we never talk about good parents and bad parents, and the effects of parents, rather than the effects of School and teachers. Young people need to be aspirational; they need to feel as though they can make a success of things, and they need the love, nurture and time investment from fantastic parents. How about Jamie’s dream parent School – get the parents of these youngsters with potential and teach them how to do a good job?

Just a thought, channel 4?