Last week, I was invited to give a talk in the Year Nine assembly at Robert Clack comprehensive secondary school in Dagenham, east London. On stage, speaking to about 300 children, I noticed how attentive they were. They all looked at me steadily, without fidgeting or conspicuous yawning. Alright, I might pride myself on being a rather lively speaker, and who knows, my audience might have been truly riveted by my “Top 10 Tips for Success” (No 1, be positive, No 2, show up) or my explanation for role models and why you need them (in my case, one Julie Burchill), but it was noticeable. Afterwards the headmaster, Sir Paul Grant praised them for their focus and eye contact. Apparently, this is a key message at the school. Eye contact, attentiveness, respect, hand shaking. At all times.
Sir Paul, who has been head for over 18 years, took over at Robert Clack when it was notorious for violence and drugs, rather than education. On his first day he sent 300 students home for various infringements of the rules. And then met personally with every single one of their parents, to explain why. Under his tough but steady leadership, Robert Clack has become an outstanding, oversubscribed school whose students may come from modest backgrounds, but go on to achieve the very highest in academic prowess. There is an orchestra. There is a debating society. The school trip this year is to Washington. DC, not Tyne and Wear. One of the Year 13 students has won a scholarship to Princeton University in the United States.
Some of the alumni may end up in the City, where their calm confidence will go down well, particularly if they come across the chief executive of Barclays, Antony Jenkins. This weekend, Jenkins pointed out in a newspaper interview that many of our young people spend so much time in front of a screen they have forgotten how to shake hands or look people in the eye. And such things matter. The children at Robert Clack know this, because it has been drilled into them by their headmaster; many, however, do not.
“We will have a lost generation of youngsters if we do not help them develop the skills they need,” warned Jenkins. “People skills, how to shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye, and hold your shoulders back.” Social confidence, he pointed out, is crucial in the international race for jobs. Jenkins says he learned how to engage with people, when working in a corner shop on Saturdays as a schoolboy. Well, how many children have Saturday jobs these days? Very few. I suspect more earn pin money by selling stuff on eBay, and you don’t need any social skills for that.
Equally, children whose Saturdays are taken up by helicopter parents ferrying them to this class or that training squad (I am as guilty as the next pushy mamma), also have precious few moments of interaction with adults. The only adults they tend to meet regularly outside school are those paid to instruct them, and there the relationship might be quite different.
Of course social confidence is one thing in which Americans are world beaters. Commander-in-chief for handshaking charm is President Obama, whose “double” handshake (he uses the right for the shake, and the left for a reassuring touch on the hand or arm) is a formidable weapon in diplomatic circles. (As anyone who has read Primary Colors knows, this technique was first developed by President Clinton, a man whose charm is so overpowering it almost needs its own press office).
For those of us who are not American, or whose kids are not at a school where the head insists on it, Jenkins advises parents should start charm school right away, by shaking hands with their children over the breakfast table. This sounds a bit like pretending we all live in Downton Abbey, but I know what he means. I might not shake hands with my children very often, but I am always reminding them to maintain eye contact when speaking to an adult, not to drift down into conversation with their shoes, and say goodbye when they leave. It makes them furiously embarrassed, but they comply, if only to save embarrassment the next time.
There is another rather handy, if unfashionable idea which saves a fortune on babysitting fees. This is to bite the bullet and drag your child along with you in your adult world. Then your child will not only have to shake hands and appear civilised as you meet various peers, but they will also have to remain silent and look interested while doing so, a key skill but a tough one to master. Who knows, it might pay giant dividends. I remember interviewing Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park fame, who explained that even though he was a shy child, his social skills were developed and refined by total immersion in adult company on a regular basis. “I was required to make up numbers at my mother’s dinner parties,” he told me. “When there were 13 people, it was regarded as unlucky so I would be dragooned in. I was told very clearly that I would have to make conversation and be charming. So I learned how to.”
So there you have it. Take your offspring with you. It might make your friends privately curse you, but you will be doing your child’s future a huge favour.