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In her final annual report as Chief Inspector of Ofsted, England’s schools and children’s services inspectorate, Amanda Spielman, opines that the Covid-19 pandemic has ‘fractured’ the social contract that exists between parents and schools:

‘The social contract that has long bound parents and schools together has been damaged. This unwritten agreement sees parents get their children to school every day and respect the school’s policies and approach. In return, schools give children a good education and help prepare them for their next steps in life.’ (Ofsted, 2023, p.7).

It is unclear how widespread this phenomenon is purported to be within the United Kingdom and beyond, but in the English context Spielman goes on to claim that there has been ‘a troubling shift in attitudes since the pandemic,’ particularly with respect to school attendance and behavioural policies. Parents, she writes, have become less scrupulous about obeying attendance requirements and more willing to challenge school policies and rules; a problematic attitudinal shift she regards as jeopardising post-pandemic progress.

Without wishing to diminish the challenges schools may face around behaviour and attendance, Spielman’s criticism of parents for allegedly breaking this contract warrants further scrutiny. Indeed, it is symptomatic of a wider trend in public policy that Jensen (2018) calls ‘parent-blame’, which locates the root cause of many social problems in supposedly deficient parental behaviours. Spielman’s criticisms are also one-sided. When she complains, for instance, that ‘the attitudes of some parents are falling out of alignment with those of schools’ (Ofsted, 2023, p. 10), no consideration is given to whether school policies themselves might benefit from re-alignment with the communities they serve. Similarly, Spielman’s assertion that ‘parents need to accept and support the school’s policies and culture’ (Ofsted, 2023, p. 10), neglects to consider that there may be occasions when parents’ concerns might be just or at the very least justifiable. This raises important questions about parents’ power, voice and status within the education system.

‘Spielman’s criticisms are symptomatic of a wider trend in public policy … of “parent-blame”, which locates the root cause of many social problems in supposedly deficient parental behaviours.’

My own research on parental activism in education offers a rather different take on such matters. Over several years I have conducted qualitative research with a range of parent-led campaign groups fighting for educational change, including campaigns around school funding, academisation, SEND issues, school refusal and closures of educational settings. In Fretwell and Barker (2023), I trace the experiences of parents engaged in school funding and anti-academisation campaigns and document sharply contrasting institutional responses to their endeavours. In the case of Protect Children’s Education, a campaign opposing school funding cuts, parents worked in tandem with schools and garnered significant political support for their goals (Note: in order to protect participants’ identities each campaign has been allocated a pseudonym). This contrasted, however, with the anti-academisation campaigns which pitted parents – and teachers – against school leaders and/or local education authorities in acrimonious struggles over their schools’ futures. Parents involved in the Eastborough Anti-Academisation Coalition and Crowley Parents Campaign reported being routinely frustrated in their efforts to be heard. Consultation processes were invariably represented as bogus and, in an effort to discredit their campaigns, parents reported being subject to various forms of misrecognition, from belittling their concerns to vilifying them as ‘troublemakers.’ What is missing here is any acknowledgement that parents’ concerns might actually be valid or ought to be heeded in a meaningful way. Indeed, it was telling that academisation was pursued in the Crowley case despite parents, teachers and school leaders being united in their opposition.

Examples like this offer pause for thought. These were parents deeply committed to defending the interests of their families and communities and their refusal to comply was less the sign of a problematic attitudinal shift, as Spielman might have it, than it was a demand for genuine participation. This is not to deny that parental activism can be contentious. After all, there are no guarantees that parents will always fight causes that are socially progressive, as recent cases in the UK and US of parents opposing the inclusion of LGBTQ+ issues in education indicate (BBC, 2022; Feola, 2023). Yet I would caution against throwing the baby out with the bathwater here. Contra Spielman, opposition and resistance can be legitimate responses to policies or rules that are perceived unjust, even where this causes friction with educational institutions and authorities. Rather than simply denouncing parents, we would be better served by establishing more effective fora for them to contribute to decision-making within education. Here, educational research has a role to play, both empirically in terms of developing further understanding of parents’ concerns and theoretically by re-imagining democratic processes within the education system so that parents, as key constituents, might be more meaningfully included.


BBC News. (2022, November 16). ‘Sex education: Wales’ curriculum legal challenge launched.’ BBC News.

Feola, M. (2023, June 6) ‘Moms for Liberty is part of a long history of rightwing mothers’ activism in the US.’ Guardian.

Fretwell, N., & Barker, J. (2023). From active to activist parenting: Educational struggle and the injuries of institutionalized misrecognition. In M-P. Moreau, C. Lee, & C. Okpokiri (Eds.), Reinventing the family in uncertain times: Education, policy and social justice (pp. 187–208). Bloomsbury.

Jensen, T. (2018). Parenting the crisis. The cultural politics of parent-blame. Policy Press.

Office for Standards in Education [Ofsted]. (2023). The annual report of His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2022–23.