Education Quandary

'My 11-year-old son is all at sea in Spanish. The school doesn't issue text books, I can't help him, he won't let me speak to his teacher, but he refuses to go and see her himself. What do you suggest?'
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Year Seven is the time when most children want their parents to back off and have nothing to do with their new school. But it is also a time when many bright-eyed primary school pupils start to morph into demotivated teens. So you are wise to want to keep a grip.

The ideal approach would be to persuade your son that he really does need to speak to this teacher about his problems. Explain that with a subject like this, he can't afford to miss out on the basics because they are the foundations on which all his future progress will depend. If he is already failing to grasp simple grammar and vocabulary just a few weeks into term, he is going to be in deep trouble by Christmas, and utterly lost by the time GCSE comes around, if it ever does.

Try to persuade him that most teachers, however they might seem in class, are actually human, and should give a pupil a sympathetic hearing if approached one-to-one. Help him work out the best way to ask to see her, and what he could say to her when he does. (Not a tactless, "I can't get a word of what you're on about," but a clear setting out of what areas he doesn't understand, and where he feels most in a muddle.)

Of course, he may not be willing to do this - plenty of 11-year-olds wouldn't be. He may be too shy, or the teacher in question may be a real dragon. In which case, try to get him to understand that you must take action on his behalf. Tell him that you won't say anything that will embarrass him and that, if the lessons are as bad as he says, lots of other parents will probably have already been in touch.

If he is still unbending, go behind his back. Ask the teacher to ring you, or make an appointment to see her, explain the problems, and see what she can do. But explain that your son has begged you not to do this, and ask that any help she can offer should be given tactfully.

If all this fails - and with really bad teachers, sometimes nothing improves the situation - you will have to look outside the school. Check out bookshops and the internet for introductions to Spanish, or track down a local tutor.


If the school budget won't run to a textbook and audio material, his teacher may not be able to do a lot about it. But combined parent power could influence that, giving the teacher the valuable support that perhaps she or he needs. As a language teacher myself, I would be horrified at such a situation, and would fight for adequate resources, enlisting parents and students in the battle. If you know at least some other parents, why not do some networking and lodge a mass protest, maybe even offering to make a contribution to the material costs? This wouldn't single your son out or embarrass him and would benefit the whole class. If going it alone is the only option, how about learning the language together? The BBC does an excellent online beginner's course, the basics are free, and for more in-depth learning, the book and cassettes don't cost much. You will get a lot out of it, too - language learning is great fun, despite the hard work.

Linda Makins, Italy

Enter into the spirit of things. Buy a simple Spanish/English dictionary, buy some Michel Thomas language tapes. Try to make learning fun.

Anne Williams, Wolverhampton

As someone studying languages in the sixth form, who has applied to read German at university, I feel that it's only natural for your son to find learning a new language difficult. The question of textbooks is a side issue - from my experience it is common not to have them, and it often helps teachers pool exercises from a variety of sources. Seeing the teacher is a good idea, but you can help at home: find your son a Spanish penfriend (you could ask his teacher to help you find one, or there are some good internet sites) and, if money permits, visit Spain. Both would allow him to practise the skills he learns in school and have fun doing so.

Sean Williams, Norfolk

Next week's quandary

"As an experienced primary-school teacher, I am used to teaching - and liking - children of all kinds, but this year I have a boy in my class whom I simply can't stand. He is rude and disruptive, but it is more than this. I feel overwhelming distaste towards him and I can hardly go near him. I feel terrible about this, especially as I'm sure he can see how I feel. It's so unprofessional. How can I get over it?"

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 3 November, 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