London - Unlocking the door, I barely had time to put my bag down before a familiar face appeared in the doorway. ‘Hello Miss. You’re late today.’ Lianne bustled in and started helping me to set up the classroom.
It was still only 7.30am, so I didn’t feel Lianne’s admonishment was really justified. But the sad truth was this little girl of 11 had been waiting outside my room since 7am.
Put bluntly, this poor child clearly preferred being at school to being at home. She would rather have my company than that of her mother.
And small wonder. At school she was fed at the breakfast club, a meal she had no hope of being given at home; at school, Lianne was spoken to kindly - there was no scary shouting or swearing of the sort she had to take from her mother and stepfather; at school, if she was cold, as she often was, a teacher would discreetly find her a jumper that not only fitted her scrawny little frame but was freshly laundered, too.
But the unpalatable reality is that Lianne is just one of thousands of children effectively being parented by their teachers.
Teachers won’t fly into a rage or strike them. They won’t ignore them for weeks on end or get drunk and let them down. So when the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, told a conference in London recently that teachers need to become surrogate parents to children whose own relatives weren’t up to the job, he was absolutely right.
His only mistake was to imply this is something new. The sad fact is that teachers have been acting as surrogate parents to children with negligent mothers and fathers for years.
The difference now is that it is being officially recognised - surely a sign of just how bad the problem has become. In the past, the incompetence of such parents has always been covered up.
The last Government was keen to pretend that with just a bit of support, even the most negligent mothers and fathers could transform into shining examples of parenthood: a source of frustration for teachers like me who had to deal with their failings.
Finally, the fact that thousands of youngsters are growing up without even basic love and care is being officially recognised.
No doubt, outside observers assume this is an urban problem, prevalent among a feckless, anti-social underclass. In fact, most of the schools in which I have worked have been in middle-class areas in the south of England.
And many had to provide breakfast clubs for youngsters whose parents sent them off to school hungry.
A decent meal wasn’t all they were lacking. Many had never been given even rudimentary guidance on manners.
‘Give me a pen, Miss,’ was the norm. These pupils didn’t mean to be rude, it was just that no one had taken the trouble to teach them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.
More worryingly, schools had to employ extra staff to teach children how to express anger or disappointment without resorting to the abuse and violence that was the norm in their homes.
I left the profession two years ago, but former colleagues tell me things are even worse now.
Viv, who works with four and five-year-olds in an affluent area of Hampshire, confides that many pupils start school in nappies.
‘Recently a four-year-old was dropped off in the morning in a soiled nappy,’ she says.
‘When I called her parents to complain, the father seemed put out and asked why I couldn’t just change it for her.’
Of course, Viv can change children’s nappies, just as I can try to teach manners to 14-year-olds who never hear the words ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ at home.
But when we went into teaching, this wasn’t part of the job description. Now, however, it seems inevitable it will become so.
Another friend, Emma, who works in a primary school, sighs as she tells me: ‘I’ve got my own children to look after, but sometimes I feel as though I’m mom to ten children, not two.’
Again, Emma doesn’t work in a deprived school, but in a solidly middle-class part of Sussex.
Nevertheless, she still finds herself ringing parents to point out that their children’s school shoes are several sizes too small.
‘It isn’t that they can’t afford new shoes, it’s a question of time,’ she says. ‘Their children are not their top priority and they just don’t notice their shoes are too small, their hair is crawling with lice or their clothes are dirty.’
Emma recounts how one little girl in her class, Anna, is always left waiting at school at the end of the day. ‘She’s only nine, but her mom is frequently more than an hour late,’ she says.
‘The mother doesn’t work - she spends most of her time in the gym or at dance classes - but she switches off her phone so we can’t get hold of her and just leaves her daughter in our care until she’s ready to collect her.
‘It’s the children who suffer. They know they aren’t being properly looked after, and if your mom and dad, the people who are meant to love you, can’t be bothered with you, of course that has a devastating impact.’
While most teachers have willingly stepped in to ‘parent’ children who need it, the idea that such a role will become part of their official duties is causing them discomfort.
‘It’s a very grey area,’ says Emma. ‘I instinctively “parent” some of the children in my class, bringing in socks for youngsters whose moms and dads just don’t bother.
‘I always have spare uniform, PE kit and food for children whose parents don’t provide these things.
‘But I don’t want to be wholly responsible for bringing up lots of children - that isn’t why I went into teaching. You can enjoy being with children without the weight of full responsibility.’
Other colleagues tell me that it is increasingly normal for them to bring in snacks for pupils who clearly aren’t being properly fed at home. And it isn’t a question of money or class - all the teachers I speak to are clear on that.
‘Some of the worst parents I’ve encountered are affluent professionals who can’t be bothered to speak to their children,’ says Emma. ‘They buy them all the latest gadgets to shut them up, but never take them to the park, eat with them or read to them.’
Sometimes it is hard to like the teenagers who turn up to school swaggering, bullying and disrupting classes. But a closer look at their dirty clothes, tired eyes and rotting teeth reveals just why they are so badly behaved: no one gives a damn about them.
My colleague Jane tells me that sometimes, even though strictly it isn’t allowed, she gives some of the children a hug.
‘Some of them never get any affection at home,’ she says. ‘They’ve learned to hide their neediness behind a mask of aggression and rudeness. But now and then, you’ll get a glimpse of just how vulnerable they are.’
The worry is that however hard teachers try to provide basic parenting, the influence of incompetent parents will prove greater.
As neglected infants become anti-social teenagers, they will mimic the adults with whom they grew up - and the cycle of poor parenting will never be broken. - Daily Mail