Back in January, 2015 I wrote a blogpost about the Daily Mail’s hypocrisy in shaming schools for enforcing their rules. While noticing that they often run stories complaining about a lack of discipline in schools, I observed:
…they also frequently run another type of school discipline story, which consists of disgruntled parents moaning about schools who have stood up to them and enforced the rules on their children. While some of these articles are, perhaps, phrased so as to hear both sides, it is clear that the human interest aspect of the story is provided entirely by the family of the child who was disciplined. Examples include (all found by Googling “Daily Mail excluded”):
- Extreme haircuts should never be grounds to exclude a child from school, says children’s champion 19 March 2012
- Boy, 14, excluded from school after teacher accuses him of making Nazi salute and clicking his heels 7 February 2013
- Pupil, 13, excluded from school for wearing ‘dangerous’ traditional tie instead of a clip-on 14 February 2013
- Schoolgirl is excluded from classes after she turned up to school with her hair dyed ginger 18 December 2013
- Schoolboy, 14, excluded from lessons for organising mass walkout over a LACK of homework 17 March 2014
- Schoolboy, 14, excluded ‘for being two minutes late when he returned from using the toilet’ 3 October 2014
- Schoolboy, 9, kicked out of classroom because he had his hair cut like Arsenal footballer Olivier Giroud 20 January 2015
- Teenager, 14, who was ordered by school to ditch his dyed red hair is expelled after he posts headteacher’s Facebook picture – complete with tattoo and even redder hair 26 January 2015 …
Today I had reason to look to see if the Daily Mail was still up to the same trick of reporting complaints about a school from the point of view of the parents, without considering whether the complaints were true or fair.
Sure enough, I found the following:
- Boy, 14, is excluded from his school FORTY-FIVE times in just nine months – but his father claims he is being unfairly targeted 26 July 2015
- Primary school that excluded up to ‘thirty disabled children in a year’ in a bid to become an academy has rejected calls from education chiefs to allow some of the children back 3 April 2016
- Boy, eight, is suspended from school because of his Peaky Blinders-style short, back and sides haircut 9 May 2016
- Mother hits out at school which unfairly discriminated against her 16-year-old son who has attention deficit disorder when they gave him detention 11 July 2016
What the 12 stories have in common, is that grievances from parents are reported as news, with relatively little priority given to finding out if they are true or reasonable. The stories often involve parents who want exceptions made for their child. In some cases, schools have little opportunity to respond about what actually happened because of confidentiality. In some stories, it is simply assumed that a school could make an exception to its rules this one time without any resulting harm to discipline. Often, the stories simply sound like the everyday excuses you hear from students who have forgotten all aspects of their own behaviour except some trivial detail which they now want to argue about.
I haven’t included the story that prompted me to look into this, because for once it is not about the behaviour of a student, but their parent. However, it is still largely in the same category. The Daily Mail reported today that:
A headteacher who made her name at a Tory party conference by claiming Britain’s education was ‘broken’ is forcing children to eat by themselves and restricting food as a punishment for their parents failing to pay for school lunches…
…Critics called the measure at Michaela community school, a secondary free school in Wembley, north London, ‘stigmatising’…
…The sanction emerged in a letter from deputy head Barry Smith to Dionne Kelly, who fell behind on meal payments for her 12-year-old son Reon. It read: ‘The deadline for this term’s lunch payments was 1st June 2016. ‘You are currently £75 overdue. If this full amount is not received within this week your child will be placed into Lunch Isolation.
‘They will receive a sandwich and piece of fruit only. Only when the entire outstanding sum is paid in full will they be allowed into family lunch with their classmates.’
Ms Kelly, an unemployed care worker, said she had already paid the money by the time the letter arrived, but Reon had received the punishment anyway.
She said: ‘I found the letter quite threatening. Isolating children for their parents not paying upfront is degrading. It’s embarrassing for poor families.’
This seems quite a serious complaint, at least in the way that it has been edited. However, in this case, some of the details the school made available to the journalists, that were not included have emerged. According to school the free food provided in isolation is of good quality. According to the school the parent had not approached them about any problems with paying. According to the school, this letter was only sent after the parent had failed to respond to 5 separate requests to talk about the matter. According to the school, the child in the story had never been in lunchtime isolation due to the parent not paying, only for misbehaviour. According to the school, this complaint was one of many from that parent, the rest, presumably so baseless that even the Daily Mail couldn’t make a story of it.
It is probably worth mentioning that this story would probably have quickly disappeared into oblivion like the other 12 stories, if people hadn’t sought to make political capital. Michaela is a free school with a traditionalist ethos and a headteacher who once spoke at Conservative Party conference. Suddenly, the left on social media decided that, despite everything they’d ever said to the contrary, the Daily Mail was an incredibly reliable source and sprung into action, not only taking the story at face value but often exaggerating it in the repetition. Many seemed to be unaware that those in poverty could claim free school meals and one tweeter even claimed that children were being starved.
It’s probably worth admitting that the way Michaela have done things is a bit unusual. Most state secondary schools allow parents to opt out of school dinners (although, in my experience, independent schools often don’t). In theory, those opting out then provide a packed lunch for their child or allow the child to go home for lunch. However, there is usually no way of checking that the packed lunch is provided, or that the child actually goes home and is fed, and it would be naive to believe that children don’t often go hungry in this situation. It’s often a bit of a shock if you go past some schools at lunchtime to see how many of the children “sent home for lunch” are actually just hanging around in the streets with their friends. Michaela are doing something very different in ensuring that the children whose parents won’t feed them are still fed by the school, but separately and in a way that won’t encourage parents not to pay. Perhaps it isn’t the best way to do things, perhaps it’s asking for trouble. Perhaps “stigma” is worse than hunger. But it is not punishing children for parental poverty. It is not obviously something most parents would object to. And it is not even half as worrying as the schools where dozens of kids hang around in the streets for their lunchtime.
Next time the Daily Mail has a go at a school, please take the time to ask how your school would look if the most disgruntled parent you know were given a platform to make unchallenged allegations. And unless you know that your school would come out of it looking great, then I suggest that all those running schools subjected to trial by tabloid be given our sympathy.