Page 9, 21st March 2008

21st March 2008
Page 9
Page 9, 21st March 2008 — Don't blame the parents

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Don't blame the parents

Judgmental attitudes are making parenting even harder, says Hugh David


It has been a rather depressing week for parents. We stand accused, variously, of making our has

the unhappiest in Europe (by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. meeting in Torquay, who want a Royal Commission on the subject); of paying bribes to get out children into decent state comprehensives (by schools minister, Jim Knight, once again showing this Government's antipathy to faith schools); and in the cases of Fiona MacKeown, whose 15-year-old daughter was drugged, raped and murdered in Goa, and Karen Matthews, whose nine-year old Shannon was missing from her Yorkshire home for three weeks of being unfit for purpose.

Judge not, and ye shall not be judged, the Bible warns us, but it now seems that having a child makes you fair game for even the most ill-informed and vindictive judgment. One might hope that, whatever decisions they have made in their life, MacKeown and Matthews might engage our sympathy. Imagine that happening to your child. It's unthinkable.

But no. The tragedies that have befallen these two women are, it seems, all their own fault because they have chosen to live in a way that is not illegal, but which is different from that favoured by the majority.

It makes me anxious to keep my head down at the school gates at St Peter's as I drop off Bruno, nine, and Gabriel, six. Wear a sober coat in case anyone thinks I'm a hippie and therefore incapable of raising my children. Keep my wedding ring on prominent display. Matthews's principal "offence" seems to be to have had a series of partners. Ensure my wallet is carefully concealed in my pocket lest I be accused of handing bribes in to the teachers at our well-regarded Catholic primary. And. of course. maintain a cheerful smile on my face. Perhaps I should hum "Spread a Little Happiness".

This absurd pressure makes me reflect on how much things have changed since I was at school. There seemed to be more trust in parents back then misplaced, admittedly, in a very few cases, but, by today's standards, a beacon of tolerance, As we have grown ever more judgmental and suspicious of parents bizarrely at the same time as ministers endlessly extol the importance of the family we have made the task of parenting even more of a minefield. Never mind about what effect your behaviour will have on your children, think how it will look to outsiders peering in.

Some things, however, don't seem to have moved on. Sadly. My sister, when we were choosing names, was keen that we should opt for a "playground-proof' name for our boys ie one that other kids couldn't make fun of. We took the view that they would make mischief with any name, and so opted for Bruno. But apparently among today's nineyear-olds it doesn't count as ruggedly masculine. Worse, it's a bit different. And so my son came home the other day and reported that he was being teased by other boys for being gay. Foolishly I had assumed that with society finally discarding its prejudices about sexual orientation, the schoolyard bigots might have been silenced. But no. Indeed the aforementioned Association of Teachers and Lecturers reports that 70 per cent of members say such homophobic putdowns are routine in the playground.

I pondered what to do. Catholicism has repeatedly condemned homophobia in recent times. So, in theory no problem with going to report it to the headteacher. But the Church also teaches that gay relationships are sinful. In such a context would the head be able to take effective action?

I doubt that Jim Knight and his colleagues read this column, but, if they did, I can imagine them nodding sagely and saying: "Ah yes, there's another problem with faith schools.Happily, they would be wrong. For while I was still trying to work out what to do, Bruno reported that the top three years at St Peter's had been gathered together by the head who had told them, in no uncertain terms, that if he heard of anybody being teased for being lanky, fat, spotty, stupid or gay, the perpetrators would be suspended.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but part of me was. It is, I suggest, another sign that those who seek to portray our faith schools as bastions of old-fashioned intolerance and indoctrination have got it utterly wrong.

/should have learned, having turned 40, not to pin too many hopes on politicians, but, despite a lifetime of disappointment, a part of me still expects the current review of faith schools by the House of Commons Select Committee on Children. Schools and Families finally to nail some of the myths that currently distort debate. To which end, Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue, fast emerging as a peerless champion on the national stage of our faith schools, was at Westminster last week. He was trying to correct for the committee the impression given by surveys carried out by the Sutton Trust and other academics, which purport to "prove" that faith schools have a more affluent intake than their immediate catchment area.

As explained many times to deaf ears, it seems Catholic schools draw from a very wide catchment area because of the relatively small number of Catholics in many areas. Therefore comparing their free school meals figures with indexes of poverty for their immediate environs will tell you precisely nothing. A more accurate picture emerges from Ofstecl's own statistics. Fifteen per cent of children in Catholic schools are entitled to free school meals, compared with a national figure of 16 per cent for all schools.

Bishop 0.Donoghue gave the MPs chapter and verse. Surely that avenue of attack is now closed?

Do keep your letters and e-mails coming in to Hugh David, clo [email protected]

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