It's exam time - almost. A visitor from Mars would surely recognise the fact not only from the strange behaviour of most of the 15 to 17-year-olds in the population (stranger than usual, that is) but also from the strained expressions on the faces of their parents. We want to help - of course we do. But are we really equipped for the job when, to many of us, the sine rule sounds like something from the Highway Code?
Help is at hand in the form of a video and workbook, called Helping Your Child to Study and Revise, produced by the British Academy of Advanced Training. It is being marketed through schools to the parents of 360,000 children. School funds benefit to the tune of Pounds 3 for each book sold.
A child spends 1,200 hours a year at school, and 4,640 hours at home. Ergo, according to the academy's founder, Dr Roy Paget, parents have a vital role in improving their child's exam performance. A prerequisite for the task is the ability to offer unconditional love and positive discipline, as evidenced by a willingness to spend what Dr Paget calls "real time" alone and in private with the child, listening to his or her fears and thoughts.
All this is unexceptional and commendable, but sits oddly with some of the more specific suggestions of the programme. We are told, for example, that parents have a duty to ensure the child shares details of each day's activities at school, even hauling their offspring back in the face of a reluctance to volunteer the information. But what if they're tired, or fancy a break from all that stuff, or just don't feel like talking at that particular moment?
In the same way the parent is advised to "get the child" (note the terminology) to go through the syllabus of every subject being taken (or to obtain a copy from the school itself). From this, it says, a priority list of activities should be drawn up together with a set of questions and answers for each subject (compiled either by the child or with the help of the teacher) on which the child can then be tested.
There is no mention of the possibility that the parent may end up reinforcing a child's mistaken answer to a question or that most parents at this stage are lucky to see their child's teacher for five minutes' contact a year. Even less is there any recognition that most exams nowadays test not just knowledge but also understanding and application of that knowledge.
More worrying, though, is the sense that throughout the process it is the parent rather than the child who is controlling events - even though we are told "positive discipline" is based upon giving our children "self-responsibility". Having parents insist schools include a course on how to study as part of their social education programme would seem a far more appropriate way of fulfilling that aim.
Unsurprisingly, given the emphasis on children being obliged to study at home in set ways and at set times (that is, at times when the parent is available), Dr Paget also suggests teaching our children how to de-stress by using a system of autogenics. Breathe in for five, hold for five, breathe out. Now focus on your feet and feel them becoming heavy. They're being encased in concrete. Concrete! My 15-year-old daughter panicked at the very idea, especially when she heard she was to go on imagining this concrete spreading to engulf her whole body.
It was a telling moment from the video, encapsulating what, for me, was the heavy-handedness (or footedness) of the whole approach. There's a fine line between assisting in someone else's life and interfering in it - a line that can perhaps be best defined by asking about the expectations involved. Just whose expectations is Dr Paget really trying to fulfil - the parent's or the child's?