A set of draconian school rules drafted by a former deputy head teacher of “England’s strictest school” has (most of) Twitter aghast this week.
In a bid to out-do his old school, Principal Barry Smith, has apparently told students they can’t ask to leave class if they feel sick, offering them what we Aussies call a “chuck bucket” instead.
What made me feel sick – quite frankly – was the way in which parents were disrespected. Talked down to like they were the modern embodiment of Orwell’s ‘proles’.
At the base of that attitude is a whole lot of assumptions based on what the Brits call ‘social class’ and what we Australians euphemistically refer to as ‘disadvantage’.
Common to both are fewer qualifications, lower incomes and sometimes a different – not necessarily lesser – set of values.
But poverty doesn’t necessarily make for shit parenting, kids who act out at school aren’t necessarily poor, and defiance or disruption at school isn’t always the result of lax parenting.
I know I’m going up against a ubiquitous explanatory discourse here, so let me explain what I mean.
1. Being poor doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids or want the best for them
I feel obliged to stick up for the parents of these kids because I’ve listened to them recount their battles with the education system and dare to breathe the fears they have their child.
I can barely breathe myself when people write about such parents as though they are too feckless to care about their children’s future or even that they are deliberately sabotaging it.
My most memorable parent interview was with a mum of 60 and I was there to discuss her fifth and youngest child. I felt ashamed when listening to her story, even though I had played no part in it.
It took two minutes for her to break down into tears and I was about 10 seconds behind. She recounted her repeated pleas for help for her 16-year-old son since he had started school. A boy who had trouble reading and writing and keeping up but who never received any help: just disciplinary action. Detentions and incident reports and suspensions.
This wasn’t what got me crying because I’ve heard it all before. No, it was the hurt in her voice and the fact that she felt she had to explain herself to me. To tell me that she wasn’t actually a deadbeat, that yes – she did live in a housing commission home supported by the taxpayer, but that she worked full-time as a carer for people with spinal injuries. At the age of 60. She was also proud that she paid rent despite earning a pittance and had never been evicted.
She was also very involved in her community and was working hard with other parents to regenerate an outer-ring Sydney suburb that the government filled with disadvantaged people and then promptly forgot.
Another thing she was at pains to tell me was that she’d been married twice and that her first husband had died and the second had beaten her up. It was clear that she knew the assumptions people make about single mums with multiple kids and it pained me that this woman who was the same age as my own (twice-married) mother felt the need to justify herself and her life to me.
That only happens when one has felt scorn and judgment. And she was very clear that she believed that this is why her pleas for help for her son went unheard.
I already knew much of this because the principal of the behaviour school (Sydney’s version of a PRU) had already told me how wonderful she was and how “fucked over” she and her son had been.
In his view, she was a great parent. Yes, she was poor but the environment in which she and her son lived – a housing commission estate that was a looong way from anywhere, with crap infrastructure, and lots of people with mental health issues and drug problems who were somehow supposed to “make their way” – had been a far more powerful influence than she.
I don’t hear much about this from the self-appointed saviours who wrote those anally-retentive school rules. They’d probably call her a whinger. Coz she’s definitely not a winner.
2. School rule-breakers can come from advantaged backgrounds
I grew up in a suburb of Dublin called Foxrock. Irish readers will know it well. Think Knightsbridge in London or Double Bay in Sydney. Ascot in Brisbane.
My brother, sister and I all went to private schools. Himself was expelled from three schools, my sister left school at the end of Year 9 when we emigrated, and I exited an Australian government comprehensive in an ignominious blaze of glory mid-Year 10.
We found plenty of wayward friends in our elite schools and posh suburbs: Kids with lots of pocket money. Kids with absent parents. Kids with trust funds. Kids with unoccupied holiday homes. Kids with too-trusting/non-communicating divorced parents.
Anyone who thinks bad stuff only happens in low SES schools obviously doesn’t get out much.
My brother, sister and I pushed and continue to push the boundaries in our own ways but we certainly didn’t get it from our parents. To say they were dismayed and embarrassed is an understatement.
The point I’m making is that sometimes parents can throw everything they have (high expectations, flying lessons, horses, grounding, emigrating – yes, emigrating) at the problem child/ren, yet some kids still have to do things their way. Even if that is the hard way.
Amusingly, I have a 15-year-old son who is reminding me of this daily and the “arghh!” conversations I have with my dad are epic. He is enjoying grandfathering much more than parenting.
Schools need to back parents just as much as parents need to back schools. I don’t see any recognition of that in Barry’s rules. Which means one side is still letting the other down.
3. School misbehaviour doesn’t mean they’ve never been told no
In my behaviour school research I was very interested in kids’ responses to the question “So, what do mum and/or dad say when you get in trouble at school?” I asked this because there is a common assumption that the answer is nothing because parents of kids who misbehave at school don’t care.
While some boys did say “nah, nothin, they don’t care”, the majority said things like “she gets upset” or “they take away my Xbox”.
We shouldn’t assume that parents do nothing just because their child happens to be impervious. It’s also passing the buck to the extreme to blame parents for what happens within school: they can’t influence what happens there as much as they might want to.
One last thing to think about is this: when children come from violent and authoritarian family environments, school authority can be a secondary consideration. Children who have experienced physical aggression and intimidation from family members can be hyper-vigilant and hyper-sensitive to perceived aggression: from peers and other authority figures alike.*
One might think that a child from this type of background would not want to break school rules to avoid getting in trouble at home but sometimes the imposition of authority by a teacher can feel illegitimate to a child ruled by fear of their parent/s.
Again, I see none of this deeper thinking at work in the rules of schools like Great Yarmouth. Rather, what I see is a manifesto designed to make sure that kids like this do not enrol or if they do that they blow a gasket and tell someone to get ‘effed.
That’s what I would have done. Shortly after describing in intimate detail what they could do with their chuck bucket.