Progress begins at home

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Positive not Pushy: how to make the most of your child's potential

By Cassandra Jardine

Vermilion pound;8.99

Help Your Child Succeed at School: the essential handbook for parents of primary and secondary school age children

By Hilary Wilce

Piatkus pound;8.99

A Parents' Guide to Primary School: how to get the best out of your child's education

By Katy Byrne and Harvey McGavin

Continuum pound;7.99

Coping with Kids

By Gailyn Groves

ContinYou pound;10, www.continyou.org.uk

Talk to Your Baby resources

Download free from www.literacytrust.org.uktalktoyourbaby

With parents' rights and responsibilities a key theme at last week's conference of the Secondary Heads Association, what is on the market for parents who want to meet schools at least halfway?

Cassandra Jardine's book is about nurturing and supporting children through their out-of-school interests, but her advice translates well. It reminded me of a five-year-old I know who used to go to a Saturday dance school. She was in two annual shows, in a theatre full of adoring families. Then she suddenly didn't want to go any more. "I can just dance on my own at home," she said, and wouldn't be budged.

"Childhood dropout", if that's the appropriate term, is more common than anyone thinks. Parents don't like to talk about it too much when it happens, having bored everyone rigid with tales of their wunderkinder.

Cassandra Jardine deals well with this situation, realising that sometimes tough love is called for. She quotes the organiser of a drama group who said: "We do not understand the word 'party' so don't even mention it to us. Illness and family weddings we will accommodate, but parties you will have to miss if you decide to do this on Saturday afternoons."

It's interesting that parents will often accept such ultimatums from dance and drama teachers or sports coaches, nodding approvingly to each other. If they don't like it, after all, they know what they can do. From a teacher or a head, however, a firm standpoint sometimes ruffles feathers; perhaps it sparks parents' own school memories.

Hilary Wilce, therefore, in her very comprehensive volume, appeals for reason and co-operation. "Try to see things from the teachers' point of view as well as your own," she writes. "Try to be assertive without getting emotional - it's often hard when your own child is involved."

Her book, at 400 pages, covers all the essentials of the school system, as well as running through current teaching trends. There's a good section on brain-friendly learning; probably necessary, given that many parents must have heard about this from their children's schools, or will do soon.

There's also lots on nutrition, exercise and sleep. (Though I can't help thinking that most parents would be over the moon if they could just get their children to sit at the table and eat a reasonably balanced meal, even if they don't mop the plate clean with a slice of organic home-made bread, and then say, "Night, Mum and Dad. Enjoy your evening. I'll read a bit and then put my own light out.")

Katy Byrne and Harvey McGavin confine themselves to primary schools, which is where parents form a more clearly identifiable common interest group.

Less than half as long as Hilary Wilce's, the book covers fairly immediate concerns, with basic information about curriculum and organisation. It cuts straight to the chase with, for example, judgments like this, on special educational needs: "Often the first hurdle for many parents is to get a teacher or school to recognise that a child does have special needs, as not all teachers recognise that parents know their child best."

That's true. The authors are also careful, though, like Hilary Wilce, to urge a non-confrontational approach to problem-solving. "Don't rush in and say something on the spur of the moment that you may later regret. Even when you are convinced of you or your child's case, make sure you go in ready to listen to what the teacher has to say."

All three books assume a literate, questioning readership. Reaching parents who don't read very much or very well, either at all or in English, isn't easy. Many schools are better at it than any publisher could hope to be.

ContinYou, which aims to build sustainable lifelong learning communities, has made a good attempt with Coping With Kids. Essentially it's 24 drawings of family and community happenings (meal times, shopping, meeting a separated parent) with some brief discussion prompts. It would be ideal for a school to use in a parents' group - a mother-and-toddler session, for example - just to start people talking, unloading stress and learning from each other.

Finally, and for free, there's Talk to Your Baby, a campaign run by the National Literacy Trust. Its website has excellent downloadable sheets of tips to encourage parents and carers to talk to their babies from birth onwards. With lovely Posy Simmonds illustrations, they're worth printing off and keeping in a school or nursery or health centre, to give to visitors with babies.

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