Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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21st century schools -- a conflicted message?

Published By: Wewstminster Forums - 19 Jul 2009

I wonder if I was only person to leave the excellent 21st Century School conference with a sense of unease?

Although much good work was reported, and it is clear that tomorrow’s schools will have close and productive links with their communities, the conference also left me wondering whether we are busy building a world where institutional care becomes the norm for far too many children, and where people always serve jobs, rather than jobs serve people.

At the heart of this concern is the head-on conflict – mentioned by several delegates -- between policies that encourage parents into training and work, and those that encourage them to improve their parenting skills and bring up their children better.

These two things are often deeply incompatible, and will always be so, unless we engineer radical and widespread changes to employment structures. But since this shows no sign of even being discussed, let alone happening, we are now expecting schools and families to take all the strain.

Being a good parent needs time and proximity. Without it, it is impossible to do all the many things that parenting classes tell parents they must do -- listen and respond to their children, set and maintain boundaries, encourage a healthy lifestyle, promote exploration and play, and give consistent love and encouragement.

But parents also have to work and bring in money, so it makes sense to provide wraparound school-based care to help them out with this. Yet the huge potential downside to this is that it can actively encourage parents to spend less time with their children, normalise the dumping of children for long hours, turn meal-times into an institutional affair, and potentially make it altogether harder for parents to stay tuned in to their children and the rhythms and concerns of their daily lives.

Meanwhile, for children in such a dawn-to-dusk system, free time becomes equated with a stream of organized activities, they are always in groups with other children, and home is just somewhere to go when your frazzled parent picks you up at the end of a long and demanding day.

For some this might be a good thing. For others detrimental. What seems certain is that in the world of the 21st Century School new social hierarchies of children will emerge, with big gaps growing up between those whose parents are able to pick and mix carefully from the options available to them, and those whose parents, for whatever reason, see childcare as something that the school, rather than they themselves, should provide.

No-one knows what the long-term consequences of such changes might be, but I can’t help wondering whether, sometime in the future, we will look back and see that we went badly wrong at the beginning of the 21st Century in not giving more help to parents to bring up their children themselves. And see that, by trying to march to the tunes of two different drums at the same time, we were always going to fall flat on our faces over the whole question of how best to help children flourish and prosper.

Hilary Wilce writes on education in The Independent, where she also has a weekly education advice column. She is a former senior editor on The Times Educational Supplement, has post-graduate degrees from Cambridge and London, and has written a book for parents -- Help Your Child Succeed At School.