Let them go if you want them to come back

2nd October 2009 at 01:00

Two sixth-year girls asked me how to get to Glasgow University for an open day. I was delighted at their ambition and sense of adventure. Relatively few of our students go to university; a lower proportion still leave Edinburgh.

At our open day, I found the same two girls in the library. "I thought you were going to Glasgow," I said. They both looked down-in-the-mouth. "Her mum wouldn't let her go, and I wasn't going on my own," one of them said.

Ostensibly, the mother didn't want her daughter in Glasgow without an accompanying adult. "You'd be at least as safe walking from Kelvinbridge through the park to the university," I replied, "as you would walking in Wester Hailes."

I was plunged into brief despair. First, there was the under-confident student who would not make the journey without her pal. Even worse, it also transpired that her pal's mother was totally opposed not only to her going to the open day, but to the very principle of her going to Glasgow University. "She wants me to stay at home. I won't. I'll leave. She's not even bothered if I go to university."

Here was a young woman already realising that she would have to battle with the very person who should be most supportive to make her vision of her future a reality.

My wise secretary, a great-grandmother, once put it beautifully: "You have to let your kids go if you want them to keep coming back."

Yet, I know the tensions in many working-class families. There are the costs of a student living away from home. More crucially, there's the fear that the young person is doing more than moving 40 miles. They are moving into a culture and life-style the parent does not know or understand, to learn skills and attitudes which may take them emotionally far further away.

In working-class communities where solidarity remains a virtue, moving out can seem like a loss, even a betrayal. In families where the struggle to raise the kids decently can be draining, the parent often desperately needs the oldest child as the vital prop. Letting go can be painful.

It's not all doom and gloom. The day before this, one of our former pupils, now starting second year at university, visited. She remained vivacious and animated as ever. She had also changed. The accent was slightly modified. The clothes were a shade more stylish. The discussion was about an enormously-expanded range of experiences and of a wider world. (She was newly returned from a summer working in South Africa and Mozambique). She said herself that university had changed her. "I still have strong views and I'm not frightened to state them, but I've learned to listen to other people's views. I'm a more tolerant person."

We have a job to engage with one particular parent, and likely many more, to convince them that education is a liberating force, to assure them that moving away geographically need not mean severing bonds, and to convince them that the best job a parent can do is to let their child go, in the surer hope that coming back will then be a voluntary option and not a depressing duty.

Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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