Every year without fail, as the trees start thinking about losing their leaves, the papers are full of the same photographs and the same stories. The pictures are of groups of teenagers grinning triumphantly — hugging one another or throwing their exam results in the air in joy.
What we have just experienced is exam results week; or, to be precise, results fortnight: first A-levels and then, one week later, GCSEs. GCSEs lead to A-levels, A-levels to university (and yet more exams) — and then at the end of it all? Well, that’s the next obstacle. But for parents, as well as children, the endless tests can be incredibly confusing.
A colleague recently told me about her son, who is due to start school in September. What could she do to help him prepare, she asked his new form teacher. ‘Whatever you do,’ the teacher replied, ‘don’t even think about starting to teach him phonics.’ Why? Because teaching him the ‘wrong’ way might set him back — or so his teacher believed. All this confusion over something that parents might think of as a relatively simple academic achievement — that is, learning to read and write — is perhaps emblematic of so many parents’ bemusement over the British education system.
The photographs of celebrating students were just part of the exam results story. The other part was the headlines alongside these images. One of the most surprising was a story revealing that the top 500 British state schools outperform the top 500 independent schools in the country at A-level. This, of course, will only cause more confusion for parents. After all that time saving up for school fees, could it be that it is a waste of money sending your child to an independent senior school? Maybe the cash would be better spent on getting your child into a good state school — and spending the remainder on something else that might help provide a ‘fully rounded’ education? Euphonium lessons, trips to Spain, Gold Duke of Edinburgh; that sort of thing.
And state versus private isn’t the only decision to be made. There’s an almost endless list of further choices: co-education or single-sex? Boarding in the countryside or a nice urban day school? Or what about a free school? The thing is, there’s no fix-all solution for every child. Some will thrive in a private boarding environment, some in the state sector; some need a change of scenery ever few years, while others would much rather stay in the same environment, with the same classmates, from three to 18. Perhaps the best thing to do is to ignore all the hype over exam results, and be willing to adapt to changes as your offspring grows up. Every child is different, after all.
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