Education Quandary: Pupils at my son's school help to staff the reception desk, but some parents are saying that it exploits pupils and takes them away from lessons

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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

The things that schoolchildren's parents get in a state about never ceases to amaze me. Isn't it interesting that these are, apparently, mainly parents of Year Seven pupils, whose children won't be asked to take on duties in the school's front office until next year?

So these are not parents who are upset about what is happening to their children now, but parents who are becoming anxious about a hypothetical problem they imagine might arise in the future.

Parents everywhere have a tremendous capacity to whip each other into a frenzy of indignation about perceived slights, offences and injustices, especially those reported through Chinese whispers at the school gate. But you need to be armed with the facts to make good judgements. For example, in this case it would be interesting to know whether or not any parents of Year Eight pupils, who have actually experienced these onerous reception desk duties, are feeling similarly indignant.

I have visited schools all over England and would say it is often the most vibrant and successful ones that ask pupils to take on these sorts of responsibilities. They know it is good for everyone to have a stake in running the school, and they have confidence that their students will conduct themselves in an appropriate manner. They also know that learning what it's like to be on a duty rota can help young people to get a useful taste of what will be expected of them when they enter the working world.

Increasing numbers of schools are going much further and asking pupils to help them appoint staff, assess teachers and advise their governing bodies on what students need. They believe that this sort of responsibility increases commitment, motivation and self-respect.

Of course it would be a problem if pupils were asked to assume too many duties, or were taken out of the classroom in their vital exam years, but I see no problem at all in pupils being asked to help out occasionally at a reception desk – in fact, I can see many benefits.

Readers' advice

All of my children have helped to staff their school's reception, and quite enjoyed the chance to get out of lessons and do something different. They did get quite bored in the quiet periods when nothing was happening, but, when there were things to do, it made them feel important, and they caught up with any work they missed afterwards. The duty didn't come round very often, so I never saw any problem with it and neither did any other parents.

Jean Duncton, Worcestershire

Surely it depends how often they're asked to do it and for how long? My grown-up nephew tells me that at his secondary school they used to do a whole day once a term as errand runners for people in the school office and the head teacher's office. Some parents complained because it took too much time out of lessons, so they changed things around and only did a half day. My own children do some helping out at primary school and it just seems normal. I did the same when I was at school.

Sherry Blakemore, Berkshire

These parents should be glad that their children are getting the chance to practise useful social skills. I presume that in this role they have to deal with different kinds of people, write down messages accurately and use their initiative in deciding how to respond to questions and problems. Employers often complain that their new employees lack such skills, so parents should be happy that their school is trying to develop them.

Henrietta Harrington, Oxford

Next week's quandary

My dyslexic daughter is in Year Four and has trouble with her short-term memory. The timed mental maths questions in SATs have been a nightmare for her, although she is good at maths if she is given time. Aren't tests like this unfair for children who have her problems?

Send your replies, or any quandaries you would like to have addressed, to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include your postal address. Readers whose replies are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition. Previous quandaries are online at www.hilarywilce.com. They can be searched by topic.

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