Peterhouse Politics Blog: Standards, Not Structures

[This post is a syndication of my latest Peterhouse Politics Society post]

When New Labour came to power in 1997, they had a handy slogan for their educational policies: ‘standards, not structures’. It was more important, they argued, to focus on raising standards inside schools rather than muck about with the overall structure of the education system itself: convenient, too, because it avoided having to make any troublesome decisions over grammar schools. As policies go it had the unusual honour of being publically disavowed rather than quietly dropped, and the government soon set about upon a noble quest to make the already rather contorted structure of the nation’s schools that little bit more unfathomable by the year. The rest, as they say, is history.

Well, I thought I’d attempt to rescue the phrase from oblivion, because it occurred to me that whilst it was a wretched failure for education it does happen to perfectly describe how we should look at another contemporary debate surrounding the upbringing of children: the role of the family.

What makes a good parent? There’s clearly no perfect answer, and the truth is that a good parent is one who manages to improvise with both luck and skill. But I’m fairly confident that most people would agree that a good parent is one who loves, who disciplines, who teaches, guides and provides support when things go wrong. A good parent strikes the right balance between taking care of a child and letting them go, establishes trust, respect and – one would hope – a lifelong bond.

All pretty uncontroversial stuff. What still appears to be more controversial with some people is the fact that the precise structure of the family in which this happens matters about as much as the layout of the family’s garden shed. Sure, a heterosexual mother and father might be the most commonly occurring pattern, but does that make a single parent, gay couple or foster family any worse for being rarer? Of course not. The standard of parenting is the one and only important thing, and – humans being as they are – that’s something which will always vary across all types of families.

This is why it was such good news that MPs successfully defeated an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill this week which would have retained the discriminatory ‘need for a father’ wording used to restrict the use of IVF by single women and lesbian couples. It’s another legal step – as with civil partnerships – which quite clearly manoeuvres the law firmly out of arbitrating which family structures are preferred over others: an arena in which it quite simply does not belong.

There were, unexpectedly, some pretty odd arguments against the move. Some claimed that it was aimed at eliminating the role of fathers altogether, which is about as silly as saying that the government should legislate against only children to preserve the role of siblings. If there is a father, than that father will have a role; if there is no father in anything other than a strictly biological sense – as is the case with a lesbian couple – then there is no role for a father. It’s as simple as that. Others insisted that the clause simply ensured that a lesbian couple would consider the need to have some sort of male role model. Whilst I would agree that male role models are generally a good thing to have, it is frankly bizarre to expect such a thing to be enshrined in legislation: why not legislate that any single mother has to provide male role models, too? Who would enforce this, the Office for Male Role Models? Let’s just go the whole hog and have an Office for Good Parenting complete with twice-yearly inspections and the ability to levy fines against any parent found ignorant of the procedures of the naughty step. It is genuinely insulting to potential lesbian parents to single them out for legal lessons on how to bring up their children, as if this is something which wouldn’t be considered before embarking on the not exactly trivial procedure of IVF.

But a few voices distinguished themselves in the desperation of searching for a respectable concern. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith was insistent that fathers filled the valuable role of showing their daughters that it was possible to have a loving relationship with men which didn’t involve sex. Presumably having two lesbian mothers wasn’t considered a similar indication that sex with men wasn’t an insurmountable fact of life. This was nothing, mind you, compared to Iris Robinson of the DUP, who opined on the horror of a child “going into the parents’ bedroom and finding two women making love or two men making love”.

It takes a pretty blinkered form of homophobia to forget that the standard of ‘not having sex in front of your child’ is one which really should be common to all parents, regardless of family structure.

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