‘Slummy mummies’ – the overreach of schools

For the past couple of days the newspapers have been buzzing with a story summed up in this Daily Telegraph headline:

‘Head teacher tells parents to stop wearing pyjamas on school run’

The Daily Mail, rather more pointedly, talked about an ‘unrepentant slummy mummy’, referring to a mother who responded to the Headteacher’s letter by taking her child to school in red pyjamas decorated with snowflakes.

The story concerns the Skerne Park Academy’s Headteacher, Kate Chisholm, letter to parents that notices:

‘the increasing tendency of parents to escort their children to and from school while still wearing their pyjamas and, on occasion, even their slippers’.

She goes on to ask parents to:

‘take the time to dress appropriately in day wear suitable for the weather conditions’.

She continues:

‘While this may seem to some like a minor point, I am sure you will agree that it’s important for all of us to set our children a good example about what is appropriate and acceptable in all aspects of life…’.

She then thanks parents for their cooperation in helping ‘our’ children’s aspirations.

I’ll come back to the letter shortly.

The story pressed a number of my buttons, seeming to reinforce points I have made in previous posts, so it was natural for me to ask some colleagues and friends (small sample: six or seven people) that I saw the day of the article how they reacted. I was expecting a majority to censure the school, possibly even commenting as to the presumptuousness of the Head’s letter. Instead, the reaction was more mixed, with some supporting the Head’s stance, whilst others agreed the mothers should not wear pyjamas taking their kids to school, but thought that the Head’s letter had overstepped the limits of her authority.

This is a story with many interlocking themes. It touches on class, it touches on gender. But at its heart, is the institution of the school, and the way a certain conception of school has come to stand as exemplar for, and emblem of, the sort of society we should admire, and aim for. This is a disciplinary society, its members firmly focused on ‘achievement’ and striving. It is governed by fear, fear of what may become of ourselves, and what may become of our children, if we are not forever striving,

It is not surprising, therefore, that schools focus not only on discipline – one school I have seen actually has a Disciplinary Manager – within their own  boundaries, imposing the behavioural regularities that disciplinary regimes require, but schools’ legal purview has now been extended beyond their physical boundaries.   Schools have powers to regulate their pupils’ behaviour beyond the school gate; and parents, too, are victims of a narrowing conception of what is properly within the parental domain, and what within the school’s. Try taking one’s child on holiday in term time, or away from school for some days for other reasons, and the chance is this will be prevented; or, if one persists, be landed with a fine.

Proposing to extend the tentacles of the school still further, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s head suggests that parents should be fined if they do not attend parents’ evenings, do not ensure their children do their homework, or do not read to them at home.

Seen in this light, it is no real surprise that the Skerne Park Academy’s Head felt able to address parents in what are, surely, presumptuous and patronising terms. The tone, my mum used to say, makes the music, and here the music is singularly discordant. Mothers, the letter says, should:

‘take the time to dress appropriately in day wear suitable for the weather conditions’.

One always needs to be on guard when the term ‘appropriate’ is used – it has so often a weasel feel, in this example tied to what is meant as an admonishment – that dress should be ‘appropriate’ to the weather conditions.

But perhaps it is the letter’s penultimate sentence that is the most patronisingly egregious:

‘While this may seem to some like a minor point’ –  Meaning: Oh no it isn’t!;

‘I am sure you will agree’  – A putdown formulation from the Standard Text Book of Put Downs. It’s a phrase that looks down its nose at those it’s addressing;

‘that it’s important for all of us to set our children a good example about what is appropriate and acceptable in all aspects of life…’  – Clearly, it is the letter writer and the school that scope what is ‘appropriate’ and ‘acceptable’. And that ‘in all aspects of life’ is suspect, there being a hint or implication that school life is life itself, that schools are the model of ‘acceptable’ and ordered lives.

There are also clear class connotations, the Mail underscoring the point with its ‘slummy mummy’ and it either being suggested, or made explicit, that the school serves Skerne Park, a predominately council owned housing estate. The linkages evoked are clear: ‘slovenly mothers’, benefit scroungers, layabouts.

It is social media that has propelled this story to national prominence. The main effect has been to serve up on a metaphorical silver platter an invitation to stereotype an area and its residents. It’s odd, or at least odd to me, that with so much being said about the need for respect and responsibility, that the mothers have been accorded none whatsoever.

2 responses to “‘Slummy mummies’ – the overreach of schools”

    1. Thanks for the link, Arthur. Well worth a read. As the author, Sam Carr says, ‘Parental involvement in education clearly matters. Families and schools should work together to foster cooperative, supportive, mutual relationships. But that should never amount to a semi-dictatorial interaction, where parents are pressured by those in positions of power to passively enforce a narrow set of ideas about what constitutes a good education.’

      It’s not that schools – better, ‘education’ – shouldn’t be woven into the heart of communities, it’s that they should not be in a position of dominance – they should be ‘part of’ a community not overlording it. What is becoming increasingly clear is that schools are not only there to educate children, but also to discipline parents.


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About Me

My name is Bernard Spiegal, I write mainly about Palestine/Israel and related issues; sometimes other stuff too


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