Puppets find new master

31st October 2003 at 00:00
It is a strange moment, when your youngest child starts university, and it has little to do with the traditional "empty nest" feeling of parental obsolescence. For one thing the family nest is far from empty during the vacations, so the innate maternal longing for a messy kitchen and sodden bathmat can be fulfilled for several months a year. For another thing, you can't feel entirely useless when you're still writing cheques.

No: my focus group of educationally keen parents all agree that the most startling thing about the start of the university years is the sudden loss of any power, control, responsibility, decision, or right of consultation whatsoever.

On one hand this is fabulously liberating. Every time I read about school standards, school trips, admissions battles, SATs, GCSEs, ASA2 or UCAS forms my heart soars in a silent oratorio of blissful gratitude that it is over, all over. Never again need I bother with any of it, except in a detached, journalistic, citizenlike or auntly spirit, which of its nature lacks the raw emotional power of an intimate family crisis.

On the other hand, once they are 18 the puppet strings are finally cut. It has been coming gradually for years: only a foolish parent tries to force a child into a particular GCSE option, still less A-level, and university ought to be a wholly personal choice, guided by cautious, informative advice from the whole posse of surrounding adults.

But, nonetheless, until the end of school a parent gets reports every term, sits across a table from assorted teachers trying to understand what they are on about, and may even still belong to the PTA. If, like me, you have a taste for schools and teachers then you can wallow in it: be a governor, raise funds, chat to the staffroom, get to know your children's classmates and generally get happily involved in the whole extended educational family.

Then it stops dead. When I dropped off my eldest at college there was a wonderful moment at the welcoming address to parents. The Master, an eminent and jovial engineer, ran us through the history and habits of his college and then asked for questions.

Whatever calumnies are heaped on Oxford, I have to report that my mingling with the parents that day indicated that this college at least has a lot of first generation university students, and is by no means overwhelmed with the privately educated and the suave toff.

A distinct confusion about the whole business was evident in some parents.

Eventually from the back, a hesitant female voice said: "How will we know how he's doing? Do we get, sort of, reports?"

The Master looked fondly at his interlocutor, plainly very glad to have been asked the question and given the chance to clear up this little misunderstanding for good and all.

"No," he said. "You don't. This is a new phase. Our contract is directly with the student". There was an audible gasp. "You can ask them how they're doing and I hope they tell you. The only time the college would normally contact you would be over a serious welfare matter. Otherwise....well, it's us and them."

Well, I thought I knew all about universities, but until that moment it had never completely dawned on me either that certain forms of communication, practised to perfection over 13 years at the school gate, had abruptly become obsolete. All those years of learning how to ask teachers the right question and interpret the answer were over.

One does not have nice little reassuring chats with an offspring's tutors about their progress, ability, health or happiness. It is Not Done. They are young adults, and if they are not ill or arrested and requiring police bail, their lives are now truly their own.

I am getting used to it now. But I suppose the moral is that if you have enjoyed your life as a parent cheering on the educational sidelines, you'd better make sure that the lines of communication are friendly and frank enough for you to get the occasional bulletin about how it's going, direct from the young horse's mouth.

If you're on the home straight now with a sixth-former on your hands, cultivate the pose of an admiring fan rather than a nagging virago forever finding fault. If you don't, a sphinx-like silence may frustrate you this time next year. Which would be terrible.

For years and years we've mainlined on exam results and been drip-fed bulletins and cups of tea and prizegiving ceremonies by dutiful schools.

Now we must go cold turkey, and face the information desert that lies beyond the final parents' evening. Who would ever have thought it was possible to miss those...

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