In loco parentis

‘The term in loco parentis, Latin for “in the place of a parent” refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. Originally derived from English common law, it … allows institutions such as colleges and schools to act in the best interests of the students as they see fit, although not allowing what would be considered violations of the students’ civil liberties.’ (Wikipedia)

However, if parents don’t agree with school policies or practice, there is little they can do. Homogenisation of the system, with relentless focus on passing tests (which, though nominally to do with lifelong opportunities for individual students, is actually about the school’s overall results, on which depend its rating by Ofsted and thus its future) means that there is less and less real choice for parents, especially those unhappy with the rigidity, narrowness and inappropriateness of the curriculum. In this respect, schools are not acting in loco parentis.

It doesn’t take you long in dealing with any group situation to realise that we’re all different and that people have very different personalities and ways of living and learning. But the education system is unwilling or unable to acknowledge this.

Among the things you learn very rapidly as a parent or someone in contact with children:

1. One size emphatically does not fit all …
whether in shoe size or rate of development. Yet our system incorporates an unwritten rule that, after a curriculum in the Foundation Stage which is play-based or at least which recognises the importance of play and child-initiated learning, something magical happens in the summer holidays during or after a child reaches the age of 5 – whether that was the previous September or not until 31 August. This is that the child returns to school ready for formal sit-down-and-be-taught learning, with a rigid separation of ‘work’ (the serious, important stuff which happens at a teacher’s behest) and ‘play’ (which only occurs at times and in ways severely circumscribed by adults). We also insist that the earlier children learn to read the better, that if they are not able or willing to do so they have some sort of learning or behavioural difficulty, that phonics is the essential component to reading and must be taught sequentially, and that if 10 and 11-year-olds don’t know about the subjunctive, fronted adverbials, and other arcane rules of grammar that only professors of linguistics previously understood, civilisation is likely to come to an end. In terms of what we know about child development and how our brains work, these conclusions are all erroneous (the technical term is ‘a load of bollocks’) and therefore it is inevitable that this system does some children harm by forcing them into learning situations they are not equipped to deal with, with sometimes appalling consequences for their confidence and self-regard.
Not responding to the manifest needs and wishes of a child would not be regarded as good parenting, yet the system often struggles even with the neediest children, and certainly does not expect to be responsive to all the various needs of a year group of 13-year-olds.

2. What works today may not work tomorrow …
so there needs to be flexibility and responsiveness in our plans for and reactions to, children and young people. Try telling that to Ofsted and anyone who wants detailed advanced lesson plans.

3. You don’t have to be with people your own age to do good learning …
and in fact children learn in all sorts of ways from all sorts of people in all sorts of situations; older brothers and sisters are generally extremely useful in this respect (especially for sex education which parents are too squeamish about and schools may not be dealing with quite right); and it’s a well-established fact that often the best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else, which makes older children helping younger ones useful in so many ways. So obviously we make children spend the overwhelming majority of their time in school in rooms with 30 or so of their peers, 1 or 2 adults and nobody else.

Many, many individual teachers and schools do their best to provide affection, care and support for children and to be responsive to their individual needs, but the system militates against it, especially in secondary schools where most adults are denied the opportunity to get to know their students properly as learners and individuals.

4. Parenting is a 24/7 job
There’s a further issue where the State is more literally in loco parentis, with Children in Care. Here (and again despite the heroic efforts of most of those working in the system with these young people) we are manifestly failing as a society to fulfil our responsibilities. We take the most vulnerable, most damaged children and fail to give many of them the unconditional love and appropriate support, consistency and continuity they desperately need. Consequently their educational outcomes continue to be on average shockingly poor and many leave the care system ill-prepared for the challenges and opportunities ahead. Multiple interrupted care placements, even for very young kids, are very common; schools lack the resources and flexibility to cope with the challenges of the social and behavioural manifestations of abused and neglected children; the fostering and adoption system doesn’t cope. Last resort, apart from a secure unit or Young Offenders institution, is the care home, where young people whose lives have been chaotic, insecure, deprived and frequently violent are mixed with … other children in a similar situation. I worked in a very small school attached to a care home with places for 6 children, and saw at first hand children re-traumatised and witnessing utterly inappropriate things, despite really excellent staff. Obviously, there’s a huge range of experience for children in such places, but if we were really serious about giving children in care the best therapeutic care and developmental experience, we surely would be organising – and financing – care in family situations (with foster or adoptive parents appropriately remunerated and supported), where the caring adults can take on a more literal parental role than a rota of different people every day, however skilled and well-intentioned, in a care home. If, as the saying goes, the measure of a civilisation is how it treats its weakest members, Ofsted should put us in Special Measures.