Go Higher: ‘Parents used to be held at arm’s length. Now the pressure is much more intense’

On the eve of her daughter’s A-level results, Sue Dearie talks about modern-day stresses – and why she’s not buying into them
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The Independent Online

When I was booking our family summer holiday in France this year, I carefully planned it for after the date the A-level results come out. That way we would be at home in south-east London with my daughter, Imogen, who is hoping to get two As and a B to read classics at Exeter.

But then it was announced that this year results day was being moved back a week, for reasons that no one has yet explained satisfactorily to me. So now Imogen and I will be leaving my husband and our other three children behind in France and taking the Eurostar back to London on 19 August so we can go to her school on the next morning to collect her results.

It has already been such a long wait for A-level pupils. Some of Imogen's friends who did the International Baccalaureate got their results way back in June and so have been able to enjoy the summer knowing exactly which university they will be going to in the autumn. I keep telling Imogen that this vacation is a special time for her, betwixt and between school and university – which is how it felt for me when I was her age. But I'm not sure that is how she sees it right now.

I did wonder whether we really needed to be there in person on results day, but the school recommended it, and a neighbour – who is a secondary school head – endorsed that. It all seems so much more pressurised than when I was waiting on my A-level results 30 years ago to see if I would get into university. I remember that I had a Saturday job and was given special permission to come in late on results day so I could wait for the post. That was all the fuss that was made.

So many things, though, have changed in the intervening decades. Expectations of parents, for instance, are much higher than they were: that we will be more supportive, more informed, more aware at every stage of our children's education. My mum and dad were content to go in once a year to meet my teachers and that was that. And the schools used to hold parents at arms' length, but now the pressure on everybody – schools, pupils, parents – is so much more intense.

I'm not sure exactly what Imogen and I will do on results morning itself. My son, Nick, who went through all this last year, didn't want me to come in to school with him. What we will probably do is drive to Imogen's school in Lewisham and I will wait outside while she goes in. If she comes out with a beaming smile, I will know it is all fine, that she has got her grades to go to Exeter, and that she – and I – can now relax while she goes off on the trip around Europe she has been planning. If it is tears, then we will have to go through Clearing and see what happens.

Sometimes I think that I am a bit too laid back about most things in general. But with A-level results, I can't see the point in getting too anxious. I try telling Imogen that she has done her best in her exams, and that now there is nothing she can change, so it is pointless to worry. It's easy to say, I know, but hard to do. Your instinct as a parent, whatever age your children are, is to protect them, to calm their fears, to be positive and optimistic on their behalf, but I also find myself thinking quietly about a Plan B and how I can support her if it goes pear-shaped.

It is a long build up to university entrance. I went with Imogen to the post-offer open days at the two universities she had chosen. She had visited them before deciding on them with a group of friends.

It is a bit of cattle market. You don't see a lot. At Nottingham – her insurance offer – we ended up trundling round on what seemed like a 10-mile hike because the campus is so spread out. Our guide was an energetic geography student in trainers who was obviously used to keeping up a cracking pace as she walked the fells.

What I did find, when we sat in one of the sample lectures they had laid on at Exeter, was that it made me want to be the one going to university again – only this time I would do the work and not fritter away my time. When I admitted it to Imogen, she looked at me like I was a sentimental old fool.

I don't get sentimental, though, about the prospect of her going away. I have been through it once already with Nick – and probably went slightly overboard in the number of useful things I sent him off to university with – most of which have returned unused. And since I had such a good experience of going to university myself, I feel very positive about my children going away and all the opportunities they will have.

That's in the future, though, and right now we are still on the results roller coaster and I am doing everything I can to support Imogen. Part of me is so very proud of her but another despairs at the way the whole system runs – especially the disadvantages I have seen suffered by pupils from state schools compared to those from private ones.

I want to be able to control the whole process for Imogen to make sure it comes out right, but then I realise that I couldn't do nearly as well in her A-levels as she will. They've got to survive on their own ability. And I know that, whatever happens, it won't be the end of anything. She may have to take another path, but it will be just as fulfilling.

Of course, when you are 18, you don't see it that way. I sometimes think what she is going through right now is like childbirth. You have a date for the baby – or your A-level results – to arrive and you can't really see beyond that date to imagine what anything will be like afterwards.