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Help them over the new school blues

As a conservative libertarian, I resent the proliferation of childcare experts. Supernanny was mildly entertaining as a television series, but quite terrifying as a government programme.

The difference between the normal population and Labour ministers is that we are not consumed with the desire to tell others what to do. The relationship between parent and child is indefinable and experts barge in at their peril. Look at the backlash against parenting guru Dr Gina Ford.

And yet... I have come to rely on a little booklet I picked up at a public library called Going to Secondary School: 101 tips for Parents, by Julie Casey MEd.

Everyone is strident about what should be taught in schools, about global competition and survival skills, selection and streaming, the length of terms, school food, health and safety, targets, inspections and the wearing of veils. But we have forgotten the simpler, poignant realities of what it is like to start at a large new school.

Children's top 10 worries are listed in my booklet as follows: "Being bullied, not making friends, getting lost, homework, not being able to do the work, getting to school and back, not having the right books and equipment, not knowing what to do if there is a problem, not getting on with the teachers, and getting into trouble."

How could anyone read that list and not be transported back to the stomach chafing anxieties of being 11 years old? When the media discuss education, it is usually at the extremities: hot-housed private school children or feral gangs at sink schools. For most children, the experience of school is all about friendships, break-ups and make-ups, losing and finding things, ups and downs with teachers, staying on top of your subjects.

A 17-year-old girl whose father died met her Dad's colleagues after his funeral. She was interested to hear how lively they thought him. "All he ever said to me was, 'Have you done your homework?'" she said.

It is a bleak anecdote, but it is also the unavoidable - although not always enforced - contract between a parent and a child. Have you got your gym bagbookskeyphone?

My little booklet sets out key tasks for secondary pupils. Get up on time; leave the house with everything you need; give yourself enough time; be in the right place at the right time at the end of school; go straight home; and know what to do if you are delayed.

The difference between a primary school child and a secondary one is the degree of self-reliance and responsibility. These are the surest signs of growing up. All teachers know this.

At any parents evening, you will find fathers measuring their child's progress via league tables or sports prowess, while teachers talk about organisation, presentation and handing things in on time.

There is a parallel narrative about clothes being lost, swapped, confiscated, named. It is the basis of the daily relationship between the exasperated teacher and the worried pupil, and parents should get wise to it.

Sarah Sands is former editor of The Sunday Times

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