If you’re a parent one of the scariest things in the world is the education system, especially secondary school. Somehow Primary isn’t quite as scary as Secondary. Is that because we remember only too well how truly awful most of high school was? Plus we read too much nonsense in the papers, so of course we’re rigid with fear.
I’m going to let you in on a few secrets to getting your child through school successfully and that means they end up happy and functional in this dysfunctional world – be that as a hair-dresser or Rhodes Scholar. There are many roads to being a decent human being and success at school is only one part of it, no matter how overwhelming it seems during the pre-teen and teen years. But you have to work at it – there are no easy cures or quick fixes.
Lesson no 1. Success at school starts at home. Cliched but true – you are your child’s first teacher. So be on their case about reading, tidying their rooms, respect for others, helping out, sharing and listening. Make them responsible for their actions; teach them about being decent human beings, don’t allow excuses for feral behaviour – ever.
Lesson no 2. You need to know your child. We don’t all produce Olympic athletes, or Maths geniuses and some children walk at 9 months and some at 13. Some take to reading, some don’t. You need to know what your child can do, what they are capable of and what their limitations are – how to push them and when to let them be. It will help you support them at school and get them extra help if they need it. Ditto, behaviour – if your child is a bully it’s pointless to deny it. You don’t help your child and the school just think you’re part of the problem. Be honest with your child and the school about what they can do and where they need help and everyone becomes so much happier.
Lesson no 3. They have to be able to read. It is the bedrock of everything, of all subjects, of all knowledge. If you don’t teach them to read when they are little you are committing a capital offence, you may as well let them wander off and play in the traffic. Once they can read, they need to keep reading. Books – novels and true stories – all books. They need to learn to sustain concentration and reading a whole book – not the abridged version or watch the bloody film and winging it – is one of the best ways to build concentration. Read to them early, have books in the house, you read too and let them see you reading.
Lesson no 4. The teacher is mostly right, but not always. Give them a break. A high school teacher has about 120 odd kiddies to worry about, as well as preparing lessons and marking and keeping up with curriculum changes. They know some students really well and some hardly at all. And sometimes they get it wrong. Beloved baby girl was predicted an E for her Maths GCSE unit exam. She got a B. Yes, we feel smug, but we knew she could do it. We knew she was being slack. The teacher thought she was dumb. You need to know your child so that when you have to argue with the school you can do it openly and effect the change you need. She’s now in top set.
Lesson no 5. It’s the peer group that matters. Who are their friends? Do you know? If they spend their days with kids who work hard and pay attention and then go home and complete their homework, they are likely to as well. If they hang out with the bottom dwellers, the ones who disrupt as often as possible, who wag/bunk school, who never complete tasks and laugh at homework, what do you think is going to happen? Who your child spends their day with is crucial to their attitude to school and their success or otherwise therein. You need to take some control over their friends when they are young, so you can have some faith in their judgement when high school starts and they are choosing friends without your watchful eye. They spend more time with their friends than with you or with teachers, so their peer group is central to how well they do and the sort of person they become.
Lesson no 6. It’s about the child not the school. There is a great deal of anxiety about getting into the right school in England. League tables and Ofsted reports are dangerous and misleading things. Children succeed despite their teachers, despite their school. Good schools produce poor performing students as surely as poor schools produce good performing students. It’s about the child. Take it from me. I worked in Distance Education for a number of years where students studied using a variety of prepared materials, textbooks and a weekly, if they were lucky, phone call from a centrally located teacher. These were kids on remote communities, cattle stations, travelling. Usually they got through the materials quicker than students in traditional classrooms, which was handy given some of them had responsibilities on the farm. They also did well enough in their GCSE and A level equivalent subjects to get into the universities of their choice. They were motivated, supported by their family and had access to a decent teacher at the end of the phone line. The teacher simply facilitated: the child did it.
Lesson no 7. It’s a triumvirate – just like Cleopatra, Mark Anthony and Octavian running the Roman Empire. Education works best when the child, the school/teacher and the home are all on the same bloody page. As above, know your child, understand the school’s expectations, know that teachers are human and sometimes stuff it up, although most really are damn good at what they do. Communicate with the school openly, honestly and regularly. A note explaining that there were issues about completing homework is so much better than an argument about an ‘unfair’ detention. School lasts for a long time, better to be on good terms with everyone working towards the same end, so be polite, attend parent evenings, monitor your child’s homework, reading, friends and if there is a problem, get in touch with the school sooner rather than later. Teachers much prefer a note in the diary explaining something odd before it goes pear shaped.
Remember, your child’s education is of paramount importance to you and your child. You both have to take primary responsibility for ensuring success at school. Yes, teachers care a great deal but not as much as you should about your own child. Do the right thing, be an active participant in your child’s life and education. It will make a huge difference and all those worries about getting into the right school will (almost) disappear.