Dani Garavelli: Don’t condemn parents in pyjamas

Parents at Skerne Park Academy were sent a letter from the head teacher advising them to dress appropriately when dropping off children on the school run. Photograph: Ceri Oakes/Ross Parry
Parents at Skerne Park Academy were sent a letter from the head teacher advising them to dress appropriately when dropping off children on the school run. Photograph: Ceri Oakes/Ross Parry
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THOUGH I have never ­ventured to the school gates in my bedclothes, I have a sneaking admiration for those who do.

Like ageing punk rockers, they care nothing for social conventions, their mussed-up hair, pink cat pyjamas and fluffy mule slippers symbols of the disdain they have for suburban respectability. ­Others may call them lazy, but I see them as counter-cultural icons, ­members of their own little ­resistance, taking a stand against playground propriety.

I realise I’m talking as if I ­frequently encounter these creatures of 21st century folklore, when in fact I have only ever glimpsed them in the pages of tabloid newspapers, where they are fodder for the righteous ire of the likes of Katie ­Hopkins – a fact that ­increases their stature in my eyes. Even if their anti-establishment­ vibe is born of nothing more than a failure to set their alarm clocks, they are preferable to those women who treat the school run as a fashion ­parade (again this is based more on Gill Hornby’s The Hive than on ­real-life experience).

Anyway, evidence that slummy mummies do exist outwith the ­fevered imaginations of short-of-­material column writers came last week, when the head teacher at Skerne Park Academy in Darlington sent out a letter urging the ones at her school to smarten themselves up. Kate Chisholm said making the effort to get washed and dressed would “raise children’s aspirations”, the ­implication being that those who ­refused were bad role models, ­heading back home for a morning slumped in front of Jeremy Kyle.

It was that judgmentalism and hint of middle-class snobbery I disapproved of; and also the assumption that “proper” jobs involve working 9am-5pm in high heels and a power suit, when we know there’s an increase in women working flexible hours from their own homes and/or doing night shifts. Chisholm may be put out because she has to dress at dawn to make sure she’s at her desk on time, but what of women who fit their businesses around their children and are up in the early hours catching up with admin? Why should they comply with the head teacher’s outdated notion of what constitutes a working day?

Chisholm’s intervention came hot on the heels of Prime Minister David Cameron suggesting all parents ­attend classes on how to bring up their children (imagine an entire ­generation reared on a diet of his poor-baiting, migrant-loathing soundbites). And it fits in with the prevailing notion that parents – and more specifically mothers – are to blame for all social ills. If it isn’t ­Muslim mums fuelling radicalisation by failing to learn English, it’s onesie-clad mums depriving their children of a work ethic.

Chisholm struck the same prescriptive tone as Cameron. Not only did she tell the parents to ditch the PJs, she asked them to turn up “in day-wear suitable for the weather ­conditions”. Presumably if they’d ­arrived in a T-shirt and canvas shoes, they would still have failed to meet her ­exacting standards.

Chisholm is not alone. A few years ago, 11 schools in Middlesbrough made the same request. And others have, in the past, asked parents not to swear in front of children, not to put sweets in their packed lunches, and to get off their mobile phones and spend time interacting with them.

While all of this is good advice, I’m not convinced it’s up to teachers to impart it. Not unless they are willing to have their own behaviour challenged. Inspiring though many of them are, our educators are not perfect; but if I encounter one who mutters under her breath, or checks her phone during lessons, or uses homework as an alternative to teaching, I don’t get to send a blanket letter to the whole primary about it.

One of my sons insists a teacher once asked his class if any of them had seen their parents drink more than five glasses of wine in a night (most of them put their hands up, so I wasn’t stigmatised). But the day that kind of question becomes acceptable is the day I am invited to her home to monitor her alcohol consumption.

Mostly, however, I disapprove of Chisholm’s approach because – in a school which is battling to get parents engaged – slob-shaming is counter-productive. Did she not learn that lesson from Rawmarsh Comprehensive in South Yorkshire where efforts to make pupils eat more healthily were sabotaged by parents delivering fish suppers through the school fence? No-one wants to feel inadequate; it puts people on the defensive.

Chisholm’s letter has split the school into toffs and chavs (or conformists and rebels). She has had supportive emails from those who appear to think stepping over the threshold in dishabille will bring about the end of civilisation and abuse from those who think she should mind her own damn business. Some are continuing to wear their jim-jams in protest while one has removed her kids from the school (and how does that raise their aspirations?).

I am not without sympathy for Chisholm’s position, particularly if parents are turning up for Christmas concerts and parents’ nights in their nightwear. If these events were ­slumber parties, I guess it would have said so in the note home.

At the same time, the mothers ­being targeted are at least making sure their kids get to school (plenty don’t) and criticising their attire can only serve to embarrass them and their children. If you want parents to change their ways far better to have a respectful word in their ear (much as you’d like them to do to you, in similar circumstances) than be the finger-wagging disciplinarian that may have turned them off school in the first place. «