Jayne Dowle: Time for parents to push harder over education

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THE Children’s Commissioner for England is getting some stick because she says parents in the North should learn from their pushier counterparts in the South.

The gist is that if we don’t get our elbows out and start demanding more, our children will never catch up with their southern cousins. Actually, I think Leeds-based Anne Longfield, a mother herself, makes a good point.

My sister lives in Maidstone, Kent. Her daughter is 13, a year younger than my son. Her extra-curricular activities take keeping up with the Joneses to a whole new level. Where they live, there are still grammar schools and the competition for places starts before the children leave nursery.

Likewise, my partner’s brother lives in Lincolnshire, and both he and his wife work in education. When their daughter narrowly failed the 11-plus earlier this year, they pushed for a re-sit. And got one. And although the girl herself was perfectly happy to go to the local comprehensive, she now wears the grammar school blazer.

It is unfortunate that Ms Longfield’s comments have come across with such a broad brush. I think what she was meaning to say is that there are many, many more parents down South who demand the very best for their children. Unless she lives in a different North from me, this is not to say for a moment that parents up here don’t care what happens in the classroom.

The interesting thing amongst my friends is that it is the ones who didn’t embrace school themselves who really care about how their children get on.

I don’t think I know a parent more committed to her children’s education than one close pal, who left school at 16.

She is the one who stores a mental note of every SATs test result, who keeps all the others waiting at parents’ evening whilst she and her husband grill the teachers and she’s not afraid to march into school to see the head if she thinks something is wrong.

Another friend, who did a business degree as a mature student, is bringing up a boy and a girl on her own. Her daughter started secondary school this year and struggled to make the right decision. It takes some strength of character to support an 11-year-old in her choice to not opt for the huge community college a walk away from home, but to choose a smaller, more traditional secondary school a long bus ride away in the next town.

Yet another friend, a single mother of four and a foster carer, sent her son round to my house for grammar tuition when he was doing his teacher training. She has had a tough life to say the least, but she is determined that her son has a better one. I’m sure the last thing this strapping 20-year-old wanted to do was sit in my kitchen doing online tests for several weeks, but we got him through it and he passed.

As for me, just ask Jack’s drama teacher about pushy parents. When my son somehow managed to mess up his timetable at the start of September and lose a GCSE option, I was straight on the phone. I was incensed that the school could stand back and allow it to happen without taking action. Within a day, we had sorted it and Jack’s place in the drama class was secure.

However, his teacher made a telling comment: “He’s not the only boy in the school to have done this, but the other lad’s parents weren’t bothered about him doing many GCSEs.” Unfortunately, there are too many parents in our region with this attitude. And it’s these parents whom Ms Longfield is thinking of.

However, it’s important that we look beneath the surface for why this might be. It’s all to do with confidence and understanding. For all kinds of reasons, most of them economic, we have many families in the North who have no idea of how the other half live. Therefore, they lack comprehension of how just high the stakes are.

I don’t wish to be insulting, but there are parents who haven’t a clue how competitive it is to get into a decent university, for example, and wouldn’t even begin to imagine the coaching and private tuition lengths people will go to in order to ensure their child can compete with the best.

It’s not their fault. It’s due to a massive grand-scale failure of aspiration, and this has many complex causes. And although some parents have a lot to learn, so do teachers. Too many I’ve talked to seem to regard academic children as a nuisance that must be accommodated in an unruly class.

They turn a blind eye to the bullying of the bright, and stamp out individuality in favour of conformity.

Too many also don’t seem to realise that preparation for higher education should start at 11, not when youngsters leave school. And too many, I’m afraid, would put all the blame for lack of aspiration at the door of the parents. The truth, as the Children’s Commissioner is finding out, is far more complex than that.