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Last Updated: Monday, 17 May, 2004, 17:47 GMT 18:47 UK
Parents join the conversation
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

Charles Clarke
Charles Clarke says the "consumer" must have more say in education
Parents are the people education ministers always say they want to persuade - but there is a long tradition of talking to everyone else first.

Teachers' unions can threaten strikes, governments and local authorities have the political muscle to make and break policy, political parties can push their opinions in front of the public.

But the parents - whose children are the consumers of what is offered - often get ignored.

As part of the Labour Party's attempt to reconnect with voters, it has been staging a series of meet-the-people events, under the banner of the Big Conversation.

And this has been held up as a way for those elusive creatures - ordinary people - to get their views across to politicians.

The education Big Conversation was held at Gateway Community College in Tilbury, a location deep in the rust-belt that runs along the Thames estuary.


These are some of the most deprived communities in Britain - and educational underachievement is part of what has been called the "poverty of aspiration".

The Big Conversation in Tilbury was the chance for the public to tell the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, how they wanted to see improvements in schools.

Arranged around five tables, the three dozen guests were given educational topics and a series of options to debate - with the promise of talking to the Labour politicians who were moving between tables.

It was a kind of political speed-dating, with the chair of the education select committee, Barry Sheerman, and Mr Clarke, soaking up the thoughts of the guests.

Except that Mr Clarke was called away after the first couple of tables, leaving Mr Sheerman to make sure this was a conversation with someone listening.

Of course, this was about a party promoting its message and selling itself as an organisation that listens. And the set-up was controlled enough to make sure that no really free-range ideas were going to emerge.

But perhaps what it did highlight was how hard it is to convert the issues about young people that are troubling voters into the rather dry policy-speak that passes for education debate.

Bad behaviour

Listening in to the conversations around the tables, there were parents who were worried about how their children would make the jump from primary to secondary school.

A mother was talking about the school in terms of a social experience, whether her son was happy and settled in with friends - a concept that is difficult for a government to measure and put on a manifesto.

Another parent was scared of going into school - and another was complaining about kids on motorbikes tearing up and down the street.

These were the real-life worries - and a head teacher said it would be impossible to exaggerate how much of a problem poor discipline among pupils had become.

He wanted children who were so disturbed that they were unable to study to be taken out of mainstream schools. "What about the rights of learners?" he said.

The head was fed up trying to teach pupils on a Monday morning who had spent the weekend taking drugs and binge-drinking.

There was more support for a parent who wanted action against the hard-core of disruptive families who were probably causing as much trouble for the housing department as the school.

Greedy children

And there was more agreement at the idea that bad behaviour was not about poverty - the affluent children of "me first" parents were often the culprits.

These ideas filtered around the tables - but when it came to the summing up, somehow it reverted back to the education-speak - and the sense that the language of parents and policy makers was not going to meet.

Speaking afterwards, Mr Clarke pointed to the importance of putting "the consumer in the driving seat" as part of the reform of the public services.

Mr Sheerman also spoke of the need to hear more from parents about what they wanted from the education system.

And that is a big challenge for the Big Conversation, when the big guns blazing on the public services are almost always the vested interests and providers.

The Conservatives' health and education spokesman, Tim Yeo, attacked the Big Conservation as showing that Labour was "out of ideas and in need of another photo opportunity".

"Labour is spending a lot of time boasting about its record on public services," he said.

"It would do much better to concentrate on righting their failures."

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