The Telegraph has an article from Timothy Hobbs, the Headmaster of the school involved in the pushy parents case thrown out by the High Court last week. He makes some fascinating observations on the nature of today’s parents…
Last month, I spent three days at the Royal High Courts of Justice. I was part of a team from my school, defending an action brought against us by former parents of Hall School Wimbledon, unhappy at how we had treated them…
…During the course of a lengthy judgment, Judge Jeremy Richardson dismissed every ill-word spoken against us, making clear, as he drew his observations to a close after an hour and a half, that this was a case that should never have come to court.
He said that the couple “viewed everything in a self-centred, self-contained artifice as though no one else but them and their children mattered”. Their behaviour towards us had, he said in his most damning statement, gone “well beyond the realms of even the most zealous, some might say pushy, parents”.
“Pushy parents” is not a phrase I would ever use myself. Our parents are, by and large, very obliging, and content to let my staff get on with their jobs. As the judge said: “No school should be bombarded with unwarrantable demands by parents.”
The parents who brought the case were unusually fussy – but, then, we are in a fussy age.
The independent education sector is now a buyers’ market. The downturn has encouraged some to question what they get for their money and to demand more from their school.
But there is a class issue at play here, too. Undoubtedly, the profile of the private-school parent has changed.
For years, private schools were a safe haven for those who could both afford them and were keen to avoid the state system. Those (usually) Victorian schools that once educated and trained the civil servants of the British Empire, with a curriculum that had as its backbone Latin, Greek, mathematics and sport, were considered the best preparation. Over time, such an education became a symbol of social accomplishment, something to aspire to and a means to secure a future.
But just as independent schools have had adapt to a changing social order to justify their existence, the profile of those that can afford to pay has changed.
When I was at school, boarding at Eastbourne College in the late seventies, many of my friends were the children of British diplomats and military. Others were expatriates. The remainder were foreigners, seeking a British education. Almost all had their fees paid for by their employers. These days, the typical profile of a fee-paying parent these days is an entrepreneur, a self-made man (such as my father) or woman.
New money has been the saviour of the traditional independent school – but also its nemesis. Those that make money and are enterprising, are, it follows, more demanding. With their prosperity comes a confidence. The aspirations for their children’s education have not changed, just the means to get them there.
Accompanying this shift in those that can afford private education has been a comparable shift in social behaviour. Once upon a time, not so long ago, the school teacher was a focus of respect, addressed by title and deemed an authority. Now he or she is a cog in the machine and someone with whom the parents meet and “get to know”. Social niceties – addressing teachers by first names, having drinks and meals with them – is the new modus operandi.
With familiarity, and a lack of boundaries, comes a new approach. Curricula and teaching styles are a matter for debate. “Child-centred” learning has displaced the old order of a demanding syllabus, rigorous exams and a hierarchy of achievement.
New technology avails those that want to be involved. Texts, email and intranet provide immediate access to an organisation. The parent that sends a message often expects an immediate response. Most schools offer the email addresses of their managers and staff. If you so invite communication, can you question the eagerness of the fee-paying parent to engage?
Fee-payers are ‘stakeholders’ and, as in all their other pursuits, they want to express an opinion and determine an outcome. They have read about dyslexia and they have had their children assessed. They have researched schools and universities, and they want to be sure their children are prepared. Today, many parents feel that they should be the ones to determine how a school is run.
Suddenly, the trust has gone, and the parent decides to “micromanage” to secure the desired outcomes. Similarly, it can be unnerving when a parent questions an account of a disciplinary incident, which they did not witness, and any punishment given in response.
Independent schools are as much under threat from their new consumers as the resurgent state sector. The huge investment in state education under the last Labour government and the innovation of Academies and Free Schools has, finally, offered real competition for the fee-paying sector. No longer are the best facilities always to be found at private schools. No longer will they necessarily be the truly ‘independent’ schools. The radical changes in our education system are the result of freedom and the excitement of schools at the prospect of the sort of independence which has been enjoyed by ‘independent’ schools over time.
So I fear that the “pushy parent” is here to stay. I’m glad to say that at my school, I have no such parents. But, they are out there, with the money and the means to niggle and complain and influence the schools that their children attend. If independent schools can offer a distinctive and remarkable education, one that is better than the best that the state can provide, then they are safe.
Perhaps it is the “pushy parent” that will enable them to be so.
Are the kinds of behaviour Timothy Hobbs describes something you recognise? Are they limited to the private sector or are parents in the state sector also following a similar approach to ‘micromanaging’ as much as possible? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments or on twitter…