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Roland Martin - Issue #4

A hot potato: how should parents collaborate with schools to manage young people's expectations?

Roland Martin

November 24 · Issue #4 · View online
Headmaster - City of London Freemen's school; Chief Officer - City of London; Chair - Society of Heads - '...write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing' Benjamin Franklin

A hot potato: how should parents collaborate with schools to manage young people’s expectations?

Before I started at Freemen’s, in the context of an Open Day wearing both parent and ‘Head Designate’ hats, I heard my Head of the Juniors at Freemen’s - Matt Robinson - give a lovely talk with prospective parents where he uses kindness - a tangible presence in our school - as an anchor for all relationships within it: 'We expect children to be kind to other children - we expect teachers to be kind to children - and children to be kind back to their teachers. We expect teachers to be kind to parents - and parents to be kind to teachers, too.’ These were encouraging relationship-aspirations to hear and were further strengthened by my pre-term strategy day meeting with the Senior Leadership Team who mentioned, when asked about strengths of the School community, that 'parents were good at disagreeing’. What they meant by this was that although parents might have concerns that they needed to raise from time to time, they did so in an essentially positive - possibly often a kind - way. 
In education, and as parents at the school gate, we come across parents who refuse to admit that anything other than a string of A*s is acceptable; in selective schools, where I have spent most of my teaching life, I have come across a handful of parents who try to squeeze their square pegs into round holes; parents of more than one child who think that schools are a one-size-fits-all solution to their sometimes quite different children; others who very much want the ‘brand’ of the school at the expense of a child who just will not cut it there, and who would be much happier in a very different school where A stars do not define you. This sort of shoe-horning is not, I would argue, kind. As Newcastle High’s Hilary French was quoted in The Telegraph, '18 year olds can feel a failure for simply dropping a grade,’ before they’ve even entered the adult world. 
Journalists have been taking on 'pushy parents' ...
There’s been a great deal of coverage in the press this last week about the detrimental effects that overly ambitious parents can have on their children. Dr Kou Murayama, who led a recent Reading University study of 3,500 secondary school pupils, found that, ‘Children of parents with higher hopes achieved statistically better test scores compared to those who aspired less.’ However … when parents’ aspirations ’exceeded realistic expectation, children’s academic performance was damaged.’ So Murayama seems to be saying, encourage and challenge your children, but know their capabilities and do not expect what they simply cannot achieve. To me, that stands to sense.
The Telegraph sounds the alarm ...
Don't aim too high for your child, parents told - Telegraph
Muruyama concludes, ’Our study does show that parental aspiration can help children achieve better results at school, but only if it is realistic. Simply raising aspiration to improve educational success could be a dangerous message’. It is regretful that sometimes some parents muddle unrealistic aspiration with realistic expectation. None of us in the adult world would like to be set targets that are not achievable; neither should our children be made to feel inadequate because they did not succeed in their parents’ eyes. Much has been written by my colleagues - mostly school leaders in girls’ schools, as it happens, but it follows for boys too - about teaching resilience through failures; as educators we try our very best to help manage young people’s disappointments, we hope, sensitively.
Recently, as part of a corporation wide initiative, the City of London invited Sahar Hashemi OBE to talk to members about how grit and resilience helped her start up a successful business (Coffee Republic). She talked of rejection, of failure, of learning to persist. I think that this kind of mindset is what our children will need as they progress through their working careers. How can they possibly develop resilience if they never get anything wrong? Sure, not everyone is going to be an entrepreneur like Sahar, but her message not to give up can only be applied once someone has faced challenges. Surely parents should not be adding to those challenges, but rather encouraging their offspring to come up with their own? I overheard some careers’ teaching advice this week - apparently, it’s not good enough now to ask children what they want to be when they grow up, we should be asking what problems they want to solve. Further more, I would  say we should not be adding to these problems by setting unachievable goals. Nor - and this maxim is of crucial importance - should we do whatever it takes to secure grades that pupils cannot take pride in achieving for themselves. I would rather have a child delighted with their less than ‘perfect’ grade, which they worked hard to acquire, than know that they are sharing their A* with parents/siblings/tutors. Which leads me on to my next bugbear … 
The sensationalised press ...
I’m loathe to quote the next ‘paper, and the teacher bashing comments that inevitably ensue - 
School teachers on Reddit reveal the worst things parents have said to them  | Daily Mail Online
- but the article was brought to my attention recently, and I thought I should in fairness share it,  half for amusement … and, because, as an English Teacher, married to an English Teacher (just short of 40 years of interactions with the parents of our students between us) believe me, we’ve seen some howlers. We’ve also seen some parents with the best intentions, really not seeing the wood for the trees.
Who are they cheating?
For me, the most pertinent comment in the Mail’s survey is about plagiarism … it’s been a massive problem with English coursework; that, and the flailing integrity in coursework in general. Here is a significant area where I feel that parents really should not interfere, but let their children do their best and celebrate whatever that best may be. Shepherd and guide, yes, but do not do their work for them, because where will that stop? Teachers, when pushed, will quietly admit that there have been pupils they’ve encountered whom they just couldn’t prove hadn’t written their own coursework … older siblings or parents appear to have helped, but cleverly enough for it to pass muster; or some parents’ reputations are such that teachers consider it little point tackling them.  This problem informed wholesale change in examination board thinking, when syllabi were re-written to include the time-consuming monster, Controlled Assessment.
Five years ago, I took issue with Sir Trevor Nunn and Imogen Stubbs in The Sunday Times when they wrote about how poorly they had scored when writing their daughter’s Drama coursework … my point of view hasn’t changed or mellowed. What were they trying to prove and to whom? I still think - and Muruyama confirms - that the pushies can do their children more harm than good … 
Letters and emails: August 22 | The Sunday Times
So where do we go from here?
I feel all the more strongly, as my own children grow up and start to yearn for (structured) independence that my job is to stretch and challenge them, encourage them, cajole them at times, but never to do the job for them. What’s the point? I won’t be sitting their finals for them and I won’t be in job interviews with them.  
However, I also understand that parents have a desire to be more involved in the lives of their children - much more so than our parents were when we were children - and that they/we have aspirations for them.  Who wouldn’t want the best for their child? What Head wouldn’t want a raft of fabulous university courses and destinations for their students and the fulfilled futures that these predict? So ultimately, it’s about balance, isn’t it?  We must be encouraging, enabling and entrusting our children, rather than doing it for them. We should certainly be realistic about challenges that they face, while also celebrating the gifts and talents which they have. As the City of London would have it: Lead; Empower; Trust.  
I hope that most parents in most schools are in fact kind to staff, and staff back to them, though I am myself realistic about the fact that not all will be. As long as we as parents are not - to paraphrase Sterne - being ‘obstinate in a bad cause rather than persistent in a good one’, and that we enter conversations in the spirit of collaboration (and kindness?) rather than conflict, then we probably have right - and our children’s best interests - on our side.
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