Education Quandary

'Is the pressure of a high-flying school making my daughter ill?'
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My 13-year-old daughter is doing well in a high-flying school, but worries about her work and has up to a day a week off school with stomach and headaches. The school won't see that there is a problem

My 13-year-old daughter is doing well in a high-flying school, but worries about her work and has up to a day a week off school with stomach and headaches. The school won't see that there is a problem

Hilary's advice

Imagine that you are in charge of pupils' welfare at a large secondary school. Your job includes dealing with pupils whose parents have died, pupils with chronic medical problems, pupils in trouble with the police, pupils with families breaking up, pupils in acute distress about their work... It's perhaps understandable if you don't immediately leap to attention over what might seem like just the odd ache and pain.

But this is clearly a serious problem, and the school must be made to take notice. Make an appointment with the right person - probably a house or form tutor, or whoever is in charge of pastoral care at the school - and write down exactly what you want to say to them. Make sure, when you go in, that you are calm, serious and quietly assertive. Schools see a lot of parents who fuss over every little thing, and it is very important that you are not taken for one of those.

Give chapter and verse of the problem - in this case, the exact number of days over the past month, or term, that your daughter has had off, the symptoms she exhibits, and whether there seems to be any pattern. Explain why you are certain that this is something serious, and ask for help.

What can you and the school do together? Is there someone that your daughter can see? Pin them down to concrete suggestions and be sure to arrange a follow-up meeting at which you can review any progress.

If this gets you nowhere, go to the head and repeat the whole thing. But don't, whatever you do, do nothing. An experienced school counsellor says that a youngster showing this level of anxiety definitely needs professional help. If a counsellor is not available through the school, ask your GP about your local child and adolescent mental-health service.

Your daughter's problem may be something that can be sorted out in just a few sessions, or it may take a little bit longer. And it might be helpful for you to talk to someone, too, either with your daughter, or separately.

Readers' advice

Your correspondent does not say whether she has consulted a doctor. I, too, suffered excruciating stomach pains, sometimes accompanied by a severe headache, weekly, at the age of l2-13. I enjoyed school and did not find the work difficult. After investigating possible problems related to the school, my mother sought the advice of our GP. I was given a diet excluding dairy products and was free of pain provided I kept to this. This problem has not lasted all my life.
Pat Guiver, West Sussex

I would check whether the problem really is an academic one. Perhaps the girl is being bullied but feels unable to say so. Is there a particular day on which this occurs regularly? It could be one teacher, or one lesson that is the trouble. If she really is anxious about her academic performance, a good hypnotherapist should be able to help.
Celia Howells, Guildford

If your daughter is so worried about doing well, perhaps the school isn't right for her. Competitive schools put huge pressure on their pupils, although sometimes it's not obvious because they cover it up with talk about how important things such as sport and art are, too. But the truth is that, for them, it's all about their results and league-table status. Also, pupils put pressure on each other, with the brightest ones competing to be top of the class. Maybe you should move her to a less pressurised environment?
Paul Jenkins, Cardiff

Next week's quandary

I graduated this summer with a degree in social sciences, and I would like to work for a charity. My plan was to gain experience by getting job in marketing, fund-raising or promotions, but I've had no luck, and am now wondering whether I should get a postgraduate qualification. I'm sick of studying, but so many people seem to have a higher qualification, it's as if a first degree means nothing any more.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 4 October, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser