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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Richard Adams Education editor

School leaders in England feel lockdown ‘broke spell’ of bond with parents

A child does maths activities on an iPad during home schooling
A child does maths activities on an iPad during home schooling. ‘The unquestionable belief that school must be attended was exploded,’ one expert says. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Lockdown “broke the spell” that bound parents and schools together, according to school leaders and experts who have endorsed the Ofsted chief’s view that many parents now disregard rules on behaviour and attendance they once took for granted.

Delivering her last annual report as chief inspector of schools in England, Amanda Spielman said: “The social contract between parents and schools has been fractured by lockdowns and closures.” And she warned: “That social contract took years to build and consolidate and it will take time to restore.”

Tom Bennett, the Department for Education’s adviser on behaviour policy, said the pandemic-era lockdowns “broke the spell” of children and parents building their lives and habits around going to school.

“The unquestionable belief that school must be attended was exploded. It’s predictable and expected to see that for some families, those have been hard habits to rebuild. And inevitably it’s the families who already struggle, who have struggled the hardest to build them,” Bennett said.

But some headteachers painted an even darker picture of hostile parents who have become unresponsive to a school’s requests, with some using private social media forums to harangue individual teachers and school leaders over behaviour decisions or attendance policies.

One school leader said he was shocked to see ringleaders orchestrate campaigns against attempts to tighten up behaviour policies and supporting pupils refusing to obey instructions or using social media during lessons.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and a former secondary school head, said Spielman’s comments agreed with what he had heard from many school leaders.

“Parents are increasingly willing to challenge school rules themselves. This applies to a minority of parents and pupils but it is a significant problem, absorbing time and energy and putting school leaders and staff under enormous additional pressure and stress.

“We appeal to parents to understand that school rules are there for the good of the whole school community and to support their schools,” Barton said.

One school in Kent has experienced such a deterioration that teachers in the National Education Union went on strike this week at the Oasis academy on the Isle of Sheppey.

Nick Childs, an NEU senior regional director, said: “Behaviour at the school is currently completely unacceptable. Lessons are regularly disturbed and staff safety and wellbeing put at risk. A zero-tolerance approach must be introduced including a fixed exclusion tariff for assaults and threats of violence against staff and pupils.”

Bennett said teacher strikes over behaviour meant “something is seriously wrong and we should listen carefully”. Improving behaviour was not helped by local authorities putting pressure on schools to avoid using sanctions such as exclusion, he said.

Spielman said the persistently high absence rates since Covid were also being driven by changes in middle-class attitudes, saying she was struck by reports that “there is no longer any stigma around term-time holidays”.

“That’s an issue across the board, that’s not narrowly about disadvantaged children. That’s about people who can afford to pay for foreign holidays, choosing the weeks that they’re going to go away,” Spielman said.

“The idea that the odd day here, the odd week there, doesn’t really matter, that they can drop in and out, actually that has real and lasting consequences for children.”

Spielman also warned against the use of part-time attendance, designed to reintegrate pupils suffering from illness or anxiety, “as a long-term accommodation that may make things more manageable for the school and the family but ultimately means [children] don’t get the education they should be getting”.

Labour sources say the party plans to make behaviour and attendance a significant area of focus in coming months, with the shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, arguing that persistent absence “represents one of the gravest threats to children’s life chances”.

“Labour will make it a priority to rebuild the shattered relationship between families, schools and government to drive the high and rising standards in education that our children deserve,” Phillipson said.

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