At the start of the school year in late
January 1979, a government high school principal was welcoming new
teachers on staff day. “One thing you must understand. Eighty
percent of the families in this school are struggling. There are
dysfunctional families, acrimonious marriages, abandoned spouses, the
works… a nd this affects everything we do here.” I will never
forget that introduction to my teaching career in a
socio-economically challenged corner of Sydney. After that school I
was never again to teach children with a deeper sense of gratitude,
nor children so craving for affection but absolutely scatty in the
Number 1: Schooling is always
affected by what happens at home. Without parental unity, strong
family life and sound parenting, it will be the children who are the
biggest losers. Sound parenting practices multiply positive
educational outcomes… educational outcomes of every type. Children
in dysfunctional family situations are disadvantaged by every
measure. Therefore it is just common sense, perhaps sadly rare
common sense, that schools must do all they can to assist parents to
be better parents and to work together harmoniously for the welfare
of their children.
In 1986 I joined the staff of a parent
initiated school in Sydney’s northwest. It was not to be a school
where well-meaning parents would be interfering in the classroom or
running to the chairman of the board with tales from their own child.
Rather the school would have the right to teach curriculum as it
professionally saw fit, yet working in close communication and in
shared values with parents. I am now Headmaster of that school. This
experience has delivered the next three lessons.
I was delving into philosophy of
teaching and I came across what is known as the principle of
subsidiarity. It encapsulated perfectly what we were trying to do.
Wikipedia explains: “Subsidiarity
is the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest
(or, the lowest) competent authority.”
Number 2: By the principle of subsidiarity, society,
through public authorities, has a duty to assist parents in the
education of their children. As parents are the first educators,
the state has the duty of giving them the support they need to
educate their children. In other words schools exist to assist
parents by providing expertise in curriculum delivery, an area that
is a mystery for some parents and a minefield for others, except for
the most competent homeschoolers.
Number 3: The
clearer expectations for parents and staff about the culture
of a school, the more likelihood of success. Expectations
determine performance. A clear educational philosophy carries great
power. Clarity of expectations and clarity of communication are
needed. When such clarity
exists, parents can be asked to commit
to attend regular and practical discussions about parenting, to
reflect on their example and on the way they manage the inputs coming
into the lives of their children. We can even ask them to reflect on
the way they work together as a couple, on the quality of the
affectionate communication they enjoy habitually with their children,
on the appropriateness of their parental expectations.
Number 4: Schools must deliver in academics. We
found that until our first Higher School Certificate graduation class
of 1993, there was an ongoing leakage of enrolments because we were
untested. That leakage virtually stopped once the first HSC class had
strutted its stuff.
We all know that academics are not
the most important goal of education, but the credibility, and even
the viability, of a school depends on its academic effectiveness.
A school may boast the Rolls Royce of
parent-school partnerships but if its academics are substandard, it
may as well shut its doors. It will not fly. All the vitally
important work of working closely with parents, and of character
education, hinges on the quality of the academic product; otherwise
parents will say, “I love the
philosophy of the school, but I can’t entrust my kids to you
because they will need the best qualifications they can get. It’s a
tough world out there.”
Number 5: Much
character education takes place through the very responsibility a
student shows in his or her studies. This is a universal
observation of both parents and teachers. Character education is
essentially about developing stable habits, strengths of character
motivated by a noble intention which become our default mode of
operating in adult life. When a student works hard out of love for
his or her parents, or out of the desire to prepare themselves for
the work they will do to serve others in adult life, such a student
is forging the virtues of responsibility, service to others,
perseverance, honesty and integrity, and a whole lot more.
The next lesson could have gone
horribly wrong. Not long after I took over as headmaster, a package
arrived from some quasi-government body proclaiming the Year of
Tolerance and unashamedly promoting a gay lifestyle. I did not like
the manipulative approach nor was there any way that the parents in
my school would approve of such material being used in the classroom
. This was a core values issue. I made the decision to pulp the
materiall — no vilification involved, simply a decision on health
and other grounds not to teach homosexuality as an attractive option.
A prime-time news crew heard, and I found myself on television being
interviewed by a young mum who thoroughly agreed with the school’s
Number 6: Nobody except a child’s parents has the
right to set the moral agenda for that child’s upbringing. The
only time, of course, that this would not be true would be in the
case of manifest neglect or incompetence.
Children learn precisely because their
brains are impressionable. Schools exist because children are
impressionable. Therefore parents and teachers have a duty to closely
manage the inputs coming into the life of a young person… whether
those inputs are a pill popping peer group, Grand Theft Auto, or
glossy magazines pumping an ideology.
A family and a school should be
sheltered environments. We are buying time to build strengths of
character so kids will be in a position to run their own lives, think
for themselves, and avoid most of the bear-pits on the way to
adulthood. As a society we must cry out for the children corrupted by
a media or a peer group that is out of reach of their parents.
Number 7: Schools can and should help with parenting
support. If families don’t succeed in values education, there
can be no effective substitute. A lot is at stake. Schools have a
direct line in all young families in our society and have the
potential to keep parenting wisdom in circulation, in a way that is
much more effective than inserts in Sunday papers and flyers in GP’s
There are virtually infinite ways of
providing such support. Input to parents must be ongoing and
practical. A key is to build in high expectations of parental
response. It can help to take full advantage of first years of
contact for deeper engagement and induction. Try a range of
approaches: regular speakers, revamped parent-teacher nights, cycles
of topics on parenting, regular mailings, inserts in the school
newsletter, weekly mothers’ groups, mentoring programs, etc. Make
sure that sport and discipline are focused on character outcomes.
Parents should be informed about issues of character.
Effective delivery of parenting skills
brings many practical challenges. A school created from scratch to
assist parents already has the culture and the structures. Other
schools have to change culture and create structures and expertise.
But this is not impossible; the corporate world is full of stories
of cultural change. What is needed is for the school boards and
public education ministries to have a will to gradually bring about
cultural change that will see schools become effective allies for
parents as their own children’s primary educators, educators not of
reading, but of character. It is transformational leadership that is
needed. The rest will follow.
is the Headmaster of Redfield College in Dural, and author of
Parenting for Character