Don’t panic about your child’s schooling!

19 November 2010
The Times and The Sunday Times

Help! I’m in a complete panic about schools! I feel that every decision I make about my children’s school is wrong. What should I do?

Firstly, be aware that you’re not alone. Being a school teacher for the last twenty years in various state schools, I’ve noticed that a lot of parents panic about their children’s education and feel like they’re getting it ALL wrong. Invariably, they are not. Ironically, the very fact that they’re worrying indicates that they shouldn’t worry!

Every year, I get my pupils to write a letter to me about their lives in the first lesson I have with them. I can usually predict from these letters how well they will do in their exams and life generally. It’s not rocket science: the children who write positively about their families, who feel like they can talk to their parents when they have problems, who are happy and confident, do well no matter what teachers they have. The research evidence backs up what I’ve observed. Save The Children estimates that 85% of a child’s learning goes on outside the classroom. This isn’t about playing Mozart to them in the womb, or making them learn quadratic equations when they’re tiny or taking them around loads of museums, it’s about paying proper attention to your child, having firm but fair boundaries, and above all, loving them. If you do these things, then your child will do well no matter where they go to school.

I’m totally confused about the different types of schools there are and which school my child should be attending. What type of school should my child go to?

One of the things that really confuses parents – even the most intellectual – are the bewildering array of different types of school there are. Most primary schools are fairly straight forward in that they are non-selective, local schools, but quite a few are “faith” schools which select their intake according to religion. The secondary school system is more complex: there are grammar schools, Academies, specialist schools, faith schools, state boarding schools, City Technology Colleges, and soon there will be “free” schools, schools set up by parents or other groups. To get specific advice about getting your child into these schools, you should look at the Advisory Centre for Education’s website – an organisation dedicated to explaining these intricacies thoroughly. They also have an excellent telephone helpline which addresses specific queries: or call 0808 800 5793.

Children are, by and large, best off going to the local school. There are some very basic but important reasons for this. Firstly, it means that your child’s friends will all be living nearby and you as a family will feel part of a community – no small thing. Secondly, it’s usually safest: your child will have less distance to travel to and from school. It also means that if there are problems or meetings you have to attend at the school, you can easily pop in yourself.

That’s all very well, but I’ve heard a lot of negative stuff about my local school. What do I do if I really think my child shouldn’t go to it?

Above all, don’t panic! Don’t believe all those rumours and gossip about the school; take time to investigate it yourself. Remember at the last count, Ofsted judged 69% of schools good or outstanding in 2008-2009, with only 4% being unsatisfactory. The chances are that your local school is great. It’s important that you go to the school yourself and talk to the teachers, the pupils and the parents and make up your own mind. I was given lots of dire warnings not to send my child to the local school, but went ahead anyway. He’s really thrived since going there. There are loads of stories like mine. If you don’t believe me, log onto the Local Schools Network, a website dedicated to celebrating and supporting local schools.

I’m very concerned about class sizes. I’m worried that my child will be lost and neglected in a big class and will only get a tiny proportion of the teacher’s attention. What should I do?

This is a big concern for many parents but I feel that they shouldn’t get so worried about it. Contrary to what you might think, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest pupils actually do better in larger classes. I’ve actually conducted lessons with class sizes of nearly a hundred and attained some fabulous results! This is because I was able to impart my expertise on a subject area to a whole year group and able to generate a work ethic amongst all the pupils. There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that children actually learn most effectively when they are either teaching their peers or being taught by them. In larger classes, this works very well when teachers set up situations which allows this to happen. Class sizes are not the key issue. The most important issue is how effective the teacher is.

What should I do if I’m not happy with the curriculum on offer at my local school? For example, what should I do if I want my child to study a “grammar school” curriculum and study subjects such as Latin and Greek?

Ask your school about this! Contrary to what you might think, most state schools are responsive to parents’ suggestions.

What should I do if I suspect or know that my child is being bullied?

Your child may beg you not to contact the school after they have confessed that they are being bullied. Ignore their pleas. Contact the school immediately. If there is no one obvious to speak to, speak to Headteacher who will should pass the inquiry down to the relevant person. Remember to keep calm when you explain your child’s problems; try not to jump to conclusions. Read the school’s anti-bullying policy – all schools should have one. Follow its procedures on this in the first instance. A good school will carry out an investigation and report to parents about what they have discovered.

Remember to tell your child that it is not his or her fault. There are a number of techniques for building self-confidence which can easily be taught (see websites below)

If you are not satisfied with the school’s response take your complaint to the governors of the school. If the governors are not able to stop the bullying, go to the police.

Useful links:

What do I do if I think my child’s teacher is appalling?

Don’t jump to conclusions that he or she is rubbish and don’t get aggressive. It may be that you haven’t heard their side of the story: remember children are often not reliable sources of information!

If things don’t improve, contact the teacher’s line manager: this is the person directly in charge of that teacher and has specific responsibility for managing them. Often this does the trick.

What do I do if my child hates doing their homework?

You need to talk your child about why they don’t like it, and then talk to their teacher(s).

I’m not sure formal homework really works with young children, except for the obvious things like doing some reading. It’s really at secondary school that the homework should kick in. Even then, it won’t be until GCSEs that it should become a big thing in the evenings.

It’s a good idea to have a designated time and communal place for completing homework. Do some work while your child is working: set a good example.  Monitor the homework diary very carefully if they have one.

What do I do if my child is really struggling to keep up with the work?

If you think your child has a learning difficulty which is hindering their progress at school talk to your child’s teacher or the school’s Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO) and ask for them to be assessed. Above all, don’t be ashamed if your child has a Special Educational Need (SEN): a remarkable one in three pupils do!

Should I get a private tutor for my child?

Personally, I would be very wary of this. Your child should be well enough taught and not need a tutor. In my experience, private tutors can be very demotivating for children and can actually hinder their progress by giving them complexes about things they shouldn’t be worried about. They can also teach them the wrong stuff because they’re not actually trained teachers. My advice is, don’t panic, go back to your child’s school and address the problems there.

What do I do if I am worried that my child is becoming obsessed with sex and drugs?

When you think the time is right, talk to your child about your fears. It is important to explain that you are frightened for them, and care for them, but try not to “ban” them from doing things – all the evidence suggests that this approach backfires. Keep your child informed. Tell them the truth!

Use the web to keep up to date with the latest news on these subjects. Parentlineplus is an excellent place to start:

What do I do if I think my child is mixing with the “wrong sort” of children?

Most importantly, don’t panic and ban them from seeing their friends. The most important thing is to find a time to talk through your “issues” with your child. See if your fears have any basis in reality. If they do, then be honest about your worries.

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