Wanted: expert help for GCSE parents

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The Independent Online
THIS is the cruellest month - an observation that one section of the population will recognise immediately: 16-year-olds taking GCSEs. No, make that two sections: 16- year-olds taking GCSEs, and their parents.

What, the ever increasing numbers of teacher unions will protest, about the stress and angst-ridden teachers? Well actually I think this a pretty easy time for them, but I'll return to that later.

Who'd be 16? The first attempt at external examinations (and 10 of them; they take more than ever these days for some reason), the first attempt at an external love life, and the period of mourning for Nirvana's lead singer not yet officially over. The teenagers, though, do at least get help in the form of glossy revision guides, for the examinations anyway.

But where are the Coles Notes for parents - particularly for those parents who are themselves perpetual adolescents? It's an obvious bestseller, yet it doesn't appear to have been written.

Jennifer Saunders has through her character in Absolutely Fabulous perpetuated the myth that it is only women who are over-the- top, vainglorious, egotistical, neurotic, (yet ever so likeable and interesting) unsuitable parents. It is, of course, more usually men. And for those of us who fit that description these are the topics that Coles Notes for Unsuitable Fathers should address.

First of all should revision be music free? Tricky one, this. Can't altogether scoff at 'it helps me to concentrate' when downstairs I've got the CD player on 'cos it, er, helps me to concentrate.

Next, how do you bluff physics? From English through to business studies one can just about remember enough or improvise enough to help when needed. Maths always offers the excuse that it changes system every other year. But physics offers only humiliations, stripping away pretensions, damaging the parent-child relationship.

What, too, are the rules about cheating? In GCSEs course work, written at home, contributes no small percentage to the final marks. Are parents meant to lend a helping hand or not? I have always assumed not; but have I thus consigned my offspring to the dustbin of academia while all around parents burn the midnight oil writing and rewriting essays, scouring Ordnance Survey maps and even, in the more eccentric homes, reciting the laws of physics?

Then there is the question of the sort of emotional succour we are meant to give. Is the way to show support the ploy that my teachers were excessively fond of, but Esther Rantzen might have doubts over, namely saying that anyone who failed would be shaming the school, letting the side down and implicitly deserved to be beaten up by the more loyal members of the class?

Or should this be a time of pampering, shopping sprees and late-night movies? Schools give precious little advice on all this. But first-time examination parents need guidelines, too. Perhaps there should be the academic equivalent of ante-natal classes.

Which brings me to the teachers and a bit of serious whingeing. My own daughter, when her GCSEs end mid-June, has the rest of the term - a full five weeks - off from her otherwise excellent school. Not special projects, not sport, not school trips, not organised helping in local hospitals but off, as in term ended, schooling over, exams finished therefore nothing more to learn.

I don't know if this post-examination leave is common throughout the state sector, although anecdotal evidence suggests it is common enough. Perhaps it occurs in the private sector as well, though with parents there able to calculate the amount of fees up the Swannee that such an extended leave of absence would imply, I suspect it doesn't. Either way, I think it's a bit daft.

What possible message can it give to the students other than that education is purely about exams? And with a flood of 16-year-olds on the market and casual employment thin on the ground anyway, the alternative to continuing their education is not going to be work experience and extra cash but boredom.

Sure, the little traumatised flowers need a rest and shouldn't have to go back to the daily grind as before. But those last few weeks of term could be used for aspects of learning the national curriculum up to the age of 16 doesn't always reach: citizenship, politics, economics, even what are oddly called 'enrichment activities' like extended music courses and, in one friend's school, orienteering.

Really there is no end of topics that imaginative teachers and relatively stress free post- examination students could come up with.

Let me put forward one radical suggestion. How about devoting a part of those last few weeks to teaching about the one thing most of the year will end up doing: parenting.

So much could be achieved in just a few days, never mind a few weeks of lessons, lectures and discussion groups on babies and how to rear them, what roles men and women should play in the home and in the upbringing of the children. Parents who were not at work could come in and join in these lessons and give their own thoughts. At the very least, it would cause the 16-year-olds to rethink some of their own assumptions about their future roles. It could make new men and new women of them all. And at least they would then be able to help their own children through the GCSEs.