Bethan Marshall: Pushy parenting doesn't work

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The last two weeks of August are never a good time for parents trying not to worry about their child's education.

The last two weeks of August are never a good time for parents trying not to worry about their child's education. Talk of the required perfection of straight As for university entrance and clutches of A*s at GCSE is enough to make them feel they should have rushed from the delivery room to get their offspring's name on the waiting list of the school that promised the best results. A new book by Hilary Wilce, who writes the Education Quandary column in this supplement, is a sound antidote to such neurosis.

Her argument is twofold. First, angst, hysteria and any hot-housing tendencies on the part of a parent are counterproductive to their child's long-term progress, and second, and conversely, leaving it all to their school is equally unhelpful. The book, Help Your Child Succeed at School, is an attempt to enable parents to negotiate a third way. Wilce believes the home is the place which models what learning can and should be like, partly through the ways in which parents engage with educational activity themselves and partly through the way in which they interact with their children. While at pains to acknowledge the growing trend towards home schooling, it is clear that Wilce believes that the roles of parent and school are distinct, and beneficially so, when both parties - school and home - are working well.

Parents, in her ideal world, provide the seedbed of their children's educational success by showing interest, listening, knowing when to intervene and when to back off and, above all, by building confidence. The home provides an environment which creates a readiness for learning and the school develops this. But such an approach requires parental knowledge of the system and this, above all, is what the book provides. Help Your Child Succeed is an un-fussy, commonsense, extremely readable account of what any parent would want to know about how the school system works. It demystifies the jargon; discusses how exams operate; explains how best to choose a school (a toilet inspection being essential - Wilce rightly identifies that clean toilets show an institution is concerned about pupil welfare); gives sensible advice on homework and tells you how to get involved in the life of the school.

It is the straight-talking, realistic tone of the book that makes it so refreshing. At one point, Wilce confesses that, while writing the section on the virtues of lending a listening ear to homework demands, she ignored her own child's request to help with biology revision. None of us, she suggests, are perfect, nor will we achieve the perfect system for our children.

Such an observation is in itself liberating, for there is too much intensity around children and school. Some of this undoubtedly comes from adults playing competitive games through their children. Yet the very real pressure of exams coupled with parental guilt - "Have we done enough? What else should we be doing?" - means that anxiety seems inevitable. These fears can both make us lose perspective on what is best for our sons and daughters and cause us to make unrealistic demands of their schools.

For Wilce there is no substitute for the time we give our children - the chats about who said what to whom, and how sir did this, and how unfair miss was to so-and-so. But she does not advocate numerous structured activities at home, programmes of study or worthy pursuits and visits. Education, she argues, should be part of the everyday relationship we have with our children, not a pressurised bolt-on.

But she does not let schools off either. While she does not think we should be monitoring, with a fine-tooth comb, the homework regime of the school, or storming up to the head with a list of complaints if they are not meeting the needs of our child, she does outline what we might reasonably expect, and how to look for signs of genuine distress or under-performance.

In the end, Wilce wants informed engagement from parents as a means of retaining their sanity and, more important, as a way of helping their children succeed. And, by implication, she wants those in school to behave professionally and get on with the job they are paid to do. It is a contract. Her book provides the small print.

The writer lectures on education at King's College London. Hilary Wilce's 'Help Your Child Succeed at School' is published by Piatkus at £8.99