Every school has a playground for its pupils; English schools provide a playground for politicians, too.  Children seek security, regularity, and continuity: The games they play in the schoolyard observe rules that do not change.  Change, though, is the contemporary politician’s reason for existence: He seeks not to hold fast to that which is good but to run fast to something he fancies will be better.  And he wants to make everyone else run fast, too.  For the here-today-gone-the-day-after-tomorrow politician, the all-change game offers excitement, but the children that are forced to play it every day are bored.  “Simon Says” is no fun if the same person always plays Simon and prefaces his every instruction with “Simon says.”

The self-contradiction of Simon’s sayings to the last several generations of British schoolchildren is reflected in the constant rebranding of what used to be known as the Department of Education.  The first change came under Margaret Thatcher, when it became the Department of Education and Science, in which the “Science” that was thus celebrated was not theoretical but applied, and applied to the development of national wealth.  Later, it became the Department of Education and Employment, in which the “and” really meant “for.”  Then, the word “for” was slipped into the title, but in a different place, when our schools found themselves lorded over by a Department for Education and Employment—though, by then, by any orthodox definition of education, the department was clearly agin it.

Now, the legion-named ministry styles itself the Department for Education and Skills, the DfES.  The change originally demonstrated the government’s belief that education is a comprehensive continuum in which manual and intellectual dexterities are equally valued, because the national workforce needs both, and education exists to prepare people for work.  However, the government has come up against a problem.  The prospect of birth, school, employment, and death (interspersed with plasma-screened TV reality shows and package holidays to Disneyland) is interrupted for many by an inability to engage with the system.  They do not have what it takes to integrate with what today passes for schooling, or with what today passes for society.  And they do not have it because their parents do not have it, either.

The real skills shortage in Britain today is not a lack of plumbers, computer programmers, or town planners: The skill in really short supply is parenting.  Having offered education to the nation as the solution to all her problems, the government has found that one of the deepest national difficulties is that many children cannot engage with it, because their parents are unable to offer them the encouragement, guidance, or support they need to make something of themselves at school—or even, in many cases, to get there with anything approaching regularity.  Inadequacy thus begets inadequacy, and the sins—and omissions—of the parents are visited upon the children and on the neighbors that their selfish behavior disturbs.

In deprived areas all over the country, promised school improvements have been stalling because of the intractability of dysfunctional children, and the government has been forced to acknowledge what it had so long denied: that poor results do not necessarily indicate poor teaching, and that poorly parented children can sometimes be impossible to teach.  The drive for higher examination results is still on, but now, a new strategy employed to achieve them is to put pressure on mothers (and fathers, where known and present) to play their part.  One of the “skills” that the education department finds itself responsible for is parenting, and its approach to raising standards here is even more heavy-handed than it was when the party line was to blame the teachers.

Fixed-penalty fines have been introduced for the parents of children who miss school, and, last June, the first 40 tickets were issued by local education authorities.  The Department for Education and Skills was quick to congratulate them.  The legislation providing for this punishment is contained in the Anti-Social Behaviour Act, which provides for a £50 fine—for each parent, should there be two.  If the fine is not paid after 28 days, it is doubled; after 42 days, imprisonment can follow.  People whose peace has been disturbed or whose property has been vandalized or stolen by inner-city truants on the rampage will welcome these new powers, but even the most ardent advocate of good order and discipline would do well to hesitate before filling his lungs for a second cheer.  More often than not, the people that will be fined will not be bad but inadequate, and more deserving of pity than punishment.

Consider the case of Patricia Amos, a divorced, impoverished, drug-befuddled middle-aged mother of five severally fathered children, who was sentenced to 60 days in prison in 2002 for failing to get the youngest of them to school.  Then, the government rejoiced that Providence should have supplied them with such a perfect example to be bundled down their new fast track to prison for the parents of truants.  Mrs. Amos publicly repented and promised to exercise her duty; her daughters were invited to speak on the wireless of their resolve never to put their mother through such an ordeal again; and one of them even went on to win an academic prize at school.  “The message is clear,” education minister Evan Lewis told the BBC in July 2003: “prosecution works.”

He spoke too soon, however.  In March 2004, Mrs. Amos was sentenced again, for a repeat offence.  Prison had punished her—and her children—but, in matters of parenting or motherhood, she left it no more educated or skilled.  “It was obvious that the policy of jailing struggling parents was nothing more than an empty political gesture,” said Claire McCarthy from the Howard League for Penal Reform.  “Now we have the proof that it was completely unsuccessful.  Patricia Amos’ greatest crime was to be a socially excluded woman in Blunkett’s Britain.  Her imprisonment is a waste of tax-payers money.”

Many at the Department for Education and Skills would probably beg to differ.  Locking up a parent for inadequacy might not be a good example of justice, but is a perfect example of a punishment imposed pour encourager les autres.  The treatment of Mrs. Amos is remarkable for its lack of humanity, but a more recent truancy case elevates the desire to be seen to punish above even the most rudimentary appreciation of cause and effect.  Under English law, a child’s parents may seek a school’s permission for up to ten days’ absence for a holiday.  Last spring, eight-year-old Victoria Corry received a good attendance award from Crumpsall Lane Primary school in northern Manchester.  Shortly afterward, her parents wrote to the head teacher to tell him that they would be taking her on holiday for 11 days.  He wrote back to say that a break of more than ten days could not be permitted and warned them that their daughter would be removed from the school roll if she was absent for any longer.  They took the holiday in any case and returned to find that she had been expelled.  She missed a further six days of lessons while her parents negotiated with the school for her readmission.

The Corry case is not a story of poor parenting, but of half-witted headmastering.  Heads have been forced to play “Simon Says” with the government, too, and their eyes are as glazed over as those of any other player.  Victoria’s head teacher’s original decision was not supported by those above him in the national chain of command.  A spokesman for Manchester City Council said: “We have been in close discussion with the school over this issue and are very pleased that this pupil is now back in school.”  Taking a child off the school roll is a “very serious matter,” said the DfES; they would expect a school to take advice from their local education authority before going down that route.  Each response conveyed an unspoken rebuke.  When the BBC asked Victoria’s head teacher for comment, he said that he was only trying to do what the government wanted and expressed the hope that it should offer schools, parents, governing bodies, and local education authorities “better guidance.”  He did not ask that they should be allowed to exercise common sense.

Had he done so, he just might have received an unexpected answer, for there are signs that the mood in the DfES is changing.  The hawks still grab the headlines, as hawks do.  It still serves the government’s purpose to celebrate the punishment of people like poor Mrs. Amos.  But the government has set itself targets that it now knows it cannot meet through hawkishness alone.  Teachers in safe, middle-class schools have been bullied into training their pupils to turn out the statistical results that the government demands; their children are no better educated, but they can jump through the required number of limply held hoops.  In many poorer areas, all the imaginable threats have been tried, and they have failed.  There, teachers’ careers have been ruined and their mental or physical health broken in efforts to keep dysfunctional children dancing to the government’s miserable, measurable tune.  Nasty has not got the politicians the results they need to prove that they have re-educated the nation; now, Simon says, “Try nice.”

This is, of course, good news—up to a point.  The government is still more concerned to make children meet targets than to educate them; it has not learned that, in education, as in life, what matters most cannot be measured.  But it has been forced to acknowledge that telling schools that social deprivation is an unacceptable explanation for poor performance is not true.  The mistake is not openly admitted.  Letters of apology have not been sent to heads and teachers ruined by being ordered to achieve the impossible.  Ministers have not made speeches begging the forgiveness of those whose careers their brittle policies have wrecked.  They have, however, stopped making speeches claiming that the only reason that their targets are not met by poor children is that they are poorly taught.

Moreover, they have introduced a new kind of flexible school structure in an attempt to equip underclass children with the support they need to engage properly with contemporary education.  (Contemporary English education is not wonderful, but it is better than no education at all.)  The so-called extended school seeks to address the needs of the whole child by providing health, education, and social services under the same roof.  These can include anything from breakfast or homework clubs to clinics for eating disorders and alcohol, smoking, and drug addiction, classes in self-esteem and anger control, and drop-in centers for those suffering from bullying or stress.  At present, 60 such schools are being tested and developed, and the government has promised that there will be 240 of them by 2006.

Creating such schools on such a scale is an acknowledgement that damaged children make poor learners, and such an acknowledgement is long overdue.  Many young people find life itself a full-time struggle, even without the demands of school.  I can say this with confidence because I have met many such youngsters myself.  I taught in a tough inner-city secondary school until a few years ago, and, toward the end of my time there, I spent six months as the school’s counselor, a confidential advisor offering help to youngsters with whatever problems they might choose to share.  That short turn of duty gave me an insight into their lives that few teachers enjoy.  When I learned what many of those teenagers had to put up with, I began to understand why they found it almost impossible to engage with school.

Numerous youngsters confided in me that they were the victims of sustained sexual or physical abuse.  Girls told me that they had been raped by their mothers’ current and previous boyfriends; one boy, that he always missed afternoon school in order to stop his father, who frequently came home in a drunken rage, from beating up his mother.  I learned from a girl who was punished for arriving at school late that she could never leave the house until she had procured the morning “fix” for her mother; one day, she arrived even later than usual, having found her mother dead on the sitting-room floor.  She came to school because she had nowhere else to go.  Another addicts’ child missed school when her parents had no money to buy food, for they had spent it all on drugs: The only way she could fend off the pangs of hunger was by staying in bed.  One girl disclosed to me that she always carried a carving knife in her satchel; she was terrified of being assaulted by her father, whom she feared might spring upon her at any time of the day or night.  I learned of vicious, secret bullying in and out of school and of family feuds that often exploded into violence in the corridors.

Every day, I heard such things and more; every day, I better understood what those damaged children lacked: a stable and loving family that offers a sense of security and support.  In the run-down housing estates served by that school, family life amounted to little more than conjugal anarchy, with a single mother as its only fixed point.  Early marriages or partnerships fell apart, and a succession of live-in boyfriends would follow.  These would usually show little interest in the children of the original relationship; sometimes, they would show rather too much.  Fearful of losing the man in their life, mothers frequently turned a blind eye to abuse.

Fragmented family arrangements like this do not provide springboards for any kind of academic success, and the government’s “extended schools” initiative is an attempt to help parents hold things together so that their children can engage with the educational process.  Extended schools thus offer as much support for parents as for their children, providing classes in parenting and behavior management.  Such skills used to be learned in the family, and, until they are taught there again, society will continue to fragment.