Tears before term-time

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
Why parents' evenings? As teachers drag themselves back to school of a winter evening, I can imagine they must ask that question fairly regularly. Certainly meeting the parents provides an opportunity to understand what kids are up against - though it should be remembered this works both ways.

However, during our most recent parents' evening - the last before our daughter sat the dreaded Higher prelims, it was the contact with other parents, rather than with teachers, which startled and informed.

Almost to a man - or woman - they were saying the same thing. Normally calm, rational children (yes, there are some) and even the normally cocky and arrogant were showing unmistakable signs of stress. There was talk of headaches, tears, stomach pains, sleep problems and temper tantrums. Normal teenage behaviour, you might think, but we parents believed otherwise.

As we waited our turn outside various teachers' rooms we mused on the reasons for this. Had it been the same in our day? Memory is a notoriously fickle servant but somehow we felt it hadn't. So what had changed? The world, for one thing. Way back when, it was still possible to leave school and find a job as a road-sweeper without having first to obtain a qualification in environmental hygiene. (No such qualification? Rest assured some enterprising further education college will offer one soon.) "Qualifications" are now a sine qua non.

All the same, there were those who argued that for anyone who sat the original O grades and Highers, there was more stress, not less. The exam was the be-all and end-all, with what felt like your entire future hanging on your performance on a particular day. By contrast, continuous assessment and project work are now a significant component of many courses. Unfortunately, this can be a mixed blessing. It can lead to children feeling that their lives are ruled by deadlines. More significantly, it can lead to parents becoming involved in their children's education in a way which, at this stage of the game, I am not altogether convinced is healthy.

Now I realise that this is a very un-PC thing to say. Homework rules OK so far as the Blair Government is concerned. Yet, not for the first time, I wonder if this is a policy which has altogether been thought through. First, there is the issue of equality of opportunity. With more and more onus being put on the home to support the learning, it is clear that children whose parents are themselves educated or who have ready access to such resources as books or the Internet are going to be significantly advantaged over those from homes where, even if the will is there, the knowledge or financial backing is not. Of course, this has always been the case, but with the increasing emphasis on individual work done in the child's own time, the gap is surely widening. More than that, the system is increasingly open to abuse - with teachers called to rule on whether or not an ambitious parent has not only assisted a child's work but, whisper it who dare, actually done it for him.

These pitfalls aside, there is also the more fundamental question of whether or not home really should be an extension of school. The concept is fine in the primary years, but part of growing up is surely to carve out your own niche in a world that is quite separate from home and parents. Some children still manage to do this. Others, it seems to me, are finding it increasingly difficult.

So if more homework and parental involvement are not the answer to improving standards in secondary education, what is? I would suggest a more root and branch approach, beginning with the abolition of the academic year. Instead schools should operate nine to five for, let's say, 46 weeks of the year. Within this structure staff should teach only 50 per cent of the time, the other 50 per cent being devoted to preparation and marking. In the same way, a proportion of the school day should be set aside for supervised private study.

And at the end of it all, everyone goes home to switch off and relax in the bosom of the family. Now if I were Tony Blair, that would have been my new year resolution. What do you think - a vote-winner or not?

Esther Read

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