Education Quandary

'My son's teacher wrote, "I despair", in his exercise book. She has apologised, but should I take it any further?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

There is a tone of joshing exasperation that is much favoured by some British primary-school teachers. Its subtext goes something like: "Oh, look at what I have to put up with, with these ghastly children! They drive me crazy. You won't believe how hopeless they all are!" Such teachers seem to think it's jokey and conspiratorial, but it is in fact sarcastic, bullying and undermining. Interestingly, it seems to be quite culturally specific. You don't find much of it in American elementary schools, nor do you find it in Scandinavian or other European schools. So you are right to be annoyed that a teacher has both written this comment and said it to you at a parents evening, and you are justified in asking for an apology. However, there is probably nothing to be gained, now, from pursuing the matter further.

Swallow your anger and look at how you and she can, together, tackle your son's problems with organisation and time-management. It is important that you explore whether there could be some deeper problem underlying these that needs attention. If not, try to work together to devise systems that can be used both at school and at home to encourage him to be more organised and in control of his possessions and his work.

And ask yourself some hard questions, too. Could you be running around after him so much that he needs to make no effort for himself? Or maybe talking about his disorganisation in a way that makes it sound cute and endearing?

Readers' advice

A bright child who is disorganised may be dyslexic. His teacher should be asked to refer him to the school's special educational needs co-ordinator for assessment. You could also contact Dyslexia Action.

Jenny Purser, Worcestershire

We had the same problem with our son. His school was very willing to criticise him but not to do anything constructive about it. We had to instigate a discussion of what could be done to help him, and suggest possible strategies. If we hadn't pushed, I think the school would just have carried on criticising him without trying to help him improve.

He's now slowly improving, with lots of support and cajoling from us. I don't doubt that the school will take the credit when he gets himself organised, but I can live with that if it means he does better!

Susan Taylor, Leeds

By all means, complain to your son's school about his "despairing" teacher. Do so, however, at the risk of undermining an evidently caring professional, turning your son into an overly shielded mummy's boy, and putting an emotive defence mechanism before the clear benefits of constructive criticism.

You've extracted an apology already, but if both you and your son are still upset, you may be insufficiently equipped to deal with the real world. Yes, school does have a nurturing role, but it is designed also to prepare the young for an altogether harsher environment. Take the lesson and be wiser for it.

Robert Carr, Kent

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary,

Can boarding-school places really be the answer for deprived children? Or is this latest idea just another political gimmick? I am the deputy head at a school in a beautiful part of the country where we could easily build a boarding hostel. But I find it hard to see how it would work, at least without an investment in specialist skills.

Send letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 27 November to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax: 020-7005 2143; or e-mail: Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack of a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser