Education Quandary

'Our 14-year-old daughter is top of her class at an independent school, but the few other high-flyers are leaving before GCSEs. She has gained a place at a very academic school, but is only considered to be "average" there. Which school would be better?'
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The answer to this depends almost entirely on the nature of the two schools, and the sort of person your daughter is, because there are pluses and minuses on both sides. If she stays put, she will be in a familiar environment, with friends, and teachers who know her abilities. She will get confidence from being academically best-in-show, and it may well be that the school will do its utmost for her, to harvest for itself some much-needed top-notch GCSE results. On the other hand, with no challenge from other pupils, she could end up with an inflated view of her abilities, and little idea of what it means to be stretched.

HILARY'S ADVICE

The answer to this depends almost entirely on the nature of the two schools, and the sort of person your daughter is, because there are pluses and minuses on both sides. If she stays put, she will be in a familiar environment, with friends, and teachers who know her abilities. She will get confidence from being academically best-in-show, and it may well be that the school will do its utmost for her, to harvest for itself some much-needed top-notch GCSE results. On the other hand, with no challenge from other pupils, she could end up with an inflated view of her abilities, and little idea of what it means to be stretched.

Moving to a more competitive environment will always be a shock to the system of a student used to being top of the heap. Your daughter will have to develop a whole new view of herself as she finds herself down among the crowd. On the other hand, she will almost certainly respond to the higher expectations, more academic teaching, and livelier classroom discussions of her new environment.

As parents, you must ask some searching questions about both schools. Why, for instance, is your daughter's school losing its very able students? And what can you pick up about the school that she might move to? Is it an academic hothouse, or a happy place that looks after its students, where a new girl will be able to settle quickly into her GCSE courses?

You also need to consider the long view. A smart student may be able to scrape by in a mediocre school for GCSEs. But when it comes to A-levels, you can't overestimate the importance of good specialist teaching and motivated classmates. Your daughter will almost certainly need to move at 16, so why not encourage her to make the jump at 14 and give her a head start?

Of course, the the best thing would be to rehearse the various arguments with her, take her on another visit to the alternative school, and then come to a joint decision. After all, if she is as smart as she seems to be, she will almost certainly have valid views of her own.

READERS' ADVICE

I would risk moving her. When our daughter was in the same position, she coasted because she lacked examples of academic excellence among her peers. She learned nothing about how to motivate herself. The teachers sometimes removed her from her age group to teach her one-to-one because she was so far ahead of everybody else, which made her feel different, hence isolated.

Moving to a rigorously academic school with excellent pastoral care – St Paul's Girls' School in London – was a shock for her because she hasn't shot straight to the top of her year. But she is now almost entirely self-motivated and daren't coast because the intellectual challenges are limitless and she doesn't want to miss anything exciting.

Your daughter might follow this same sequence in a stretching environment and, no, I wouldn't trust what her school says, because it will be gaining A*s without having to do much for her.

Katie Mavity, Mortlake

Academic vigour isn't everything. Your daughter has been deemed able by teachers, so, when choosing a school, other factors are also important: approachable teachers, pastoral support, a peer group in which she feels happy. If she is secure at her current school, leave her there. I attended a comprehensive, was taught in mixed-ability sets, and got 9A*s and 3As at GCSE. And school is only part of it: an independent, hard-working, inquisitive attitude, with support from home, is just as important.

Seán Williams, Norfolk

It isn't as easy to move schools as parents think. We moved a lot when I was younger and I went to three schools in three years. You always feel awkward as a new girl, and the people who want to make friends with you are usually the losers, with no friends of their own. It can take a year to feel OK in a new school.

Helen Price [16], Shropshire

NEXT WEEK'S QUANDARY

After Easter, my son will be returning to school to take his A-levels. He and his friends are working hard to finish their coursework and do their revision, but they are obviously cynical about how their work will be marked, saying that there is no guarantee that last summer's fiasco won't be repeated. What can I say to reassure them? Or are they right?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 28 April, 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 h.wilce@btinternet.com. 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

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