Education: Try to speak before you're spoken to

Parents should be working with their children's teachers to ensure the very best education and environment for youngsters to flourish. Good. So why do so many parents seem to be at odds with schools over these vital issues?
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The Independent Online
WHEN IT comes to education, I must know more than most. Some of my nicest relations are teachers. I've been a primary school governor. I can speak educationese with the best of them. I know my Ofsteds from my Sats and my performance tables from my target-setting.

So how come I always feel so hopeless when it comes to my own children's schooling? Even after 18 years of parenting, and three children, hitting the right note and asking the right questions don't get any easier.

First off is the question of just how far do you push for special help? My son was six when we realised his reading was technically OK, but he had virtually no understanding of what he was managing to decode.

"He's fine," said the teacher. "Give him time." A further two terms went by, and whenever I mentioned the issue I got the clear impression that I was a pushy middle-class mother determined to collar scarce resources for a non-existent problem.

When he was finally assessed by the educational psychologist, everything was indeed fine, except for his performance in the crucial area of "sequencing" - basically, being able to infer what happens next. He was so far below normal, he was off the given scale. This was possibly related to neurological damage caused by babyhood epilepsy. He was "prescribed" special remedial work at home and at school, which helped, and I was glad we'd insisted. The issue has, nevertheless, not gone away, and lies at the root of current hassles he's having with his A-levels. Only a few teachers have spotted it, and we have given up pointing it out. His general achievements over the next 10 years have been adequate, and most teachers just look baffled at our concern.

I'm afraid too many teachers forget that parents may know their own child far better than they do. Take the question of bullying. For me, it was a big deal to go into school to say that my (then) 13-year-old daughter cried every night in fear of the venomous little minxes who taunted her. I put it off for weeks in the hope that the bullies would get bored, while encouraging her to become thicker-skinned. When I finally went, I was extremely nervous. I was not reassured by the year head telling me this behaviour was normal among teenage girls and maybe my daughter was exaggerating her distress. "She seems quite happy at school." Of course. It's the parent who's likely to see the reactions that are so well hidden in lesson time.

Yet parents, on the whole, want to be best friends with the school. I am a case in point. I have helped with IT lessons, made friezes with lentils, and organised more PTA produce stalls than you can shake a bottle of elderberry wine at. I never miss a parents' evening. I even go to that dismally attended summer evening when the governors present their annual report. In short, I'm one of those involved parents who are meant to feel valued by today's schools.

"Welcoming parents" is so taken for granted that it's easy to forget what a sea change it represents. Many primary schools used to have a line painted in the yard with a notice, "no parents beyond here". My own mother came once a year to a designated parents' afternoon, spending five minutes with my form teacher, being talked at. I don't think my father set foot inside the school until I joined the sixth form. I can still remember the drama of it - he got the head to change some timetable inflexibility that was forcing me to do A-level Latin (I'm still grateful). The very idea that your parents could influence anything in that way was totally new.

Only 20 or 30 years ago, teachers expected parents to be passive consumers of their expertise, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when vestiges of this attitude persist. Teachers may be taken aback when we fight our child's corner, and ask critical questions about teaching methods and curriculum - forgetting that we have to be quite brave to do this. We're the first generation to try it, after all. I had to ask my elder daughter's humanities teacher why she was given worksheets with statistics on poverty and unemployment which ended in 1985 (this in 1995) - but my natural impulse was to remain deferential and to say nothing. I had sweating palms ,and had to remind myself to stay calm.

Mostly, in fact, we make a point of backing teachers. I was summoned to deal with a "poison pen letter" my seven-year-old had sent. The letter said, for the record, "Dear Alix, you do horrid smelly poos". OK, hardly threatening, but it can't have been nice for poor little Alix, and there was no doubt of my support for the teacher's concern.

However, while teachers tell me they think parents are more likely to confront them these days and defend their own children's bad behaviour, my experience is that we tend to hold back. I have heard far more moaning and groaning and grumbling from fellow parents outside the school gates and across my kitchen table than ever meets a teacher's ears. Many parents think their children are unfairly treated, or have gripes about the school, but hesitate to say so formally.

We're worried about being branded the Parent from Hell. We know full well some children do have 'em. There was the mother, when I was a school governor, who wrote to us about the cord trousers worn by the (male) class teacher. She thought the governors should demand a suit. And there was the mother who contacted the head because she was unsatisfied with her daughter's part in the nativity play. "But she's playing Mary," spluttered the head. "That's the most important part." "Yes," said the mother, "but she doesn't say much." Listen to teachers and the stories come tumbling out - we are a rum bunch.

Trouble is, even the involved ones among us don't know how to be real partners in our children's education. We no longer buy the notion that it should be left to experts, but we worry about getting the tone, the words and the timing wrong. We worry about legitimate worries being rebuffed. Most of all we worry about our kids - and we'd love to feel that we and their teachers are on the same side. Just what is to be done, Mr Blunkett?


If you find it tricky to broach problems with teachers, try these tips

What's the first thing you should do? Write down your concerns before the

meeting, says Margaret Morrissey, from the National Council of Parent

Teacher Associations.

"Or," she adds, "why not use one of our Helping Hand sheets with a ticklist of common questions."

(See address below)

The NCPTA is urging the Teacher Training Agency to include a module on working with parents for student teachers. "Parents need to be

fair, too," she says. "If you don't get a satisfactory response from the class teacher, do say if you intend to take it further.

"The worst thing is to imply you're quite happy, and then go up the chain to the head or the

governors - you lose all credibility then."

n For copies of the NCPTA's `Helping Hand' sheets, send an sae to NCTPA, Ebbsfleet Estate, Stonebridge Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 9DZ