Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

At it again!

At it again!


They’re at it again! The head of yet another major southern independent school is complaining about parents. The headline in last weekend’s Sunday Times read as follows:

Career Obsessed …. Aged 10. Pushy parents’ young children are losing the ability to enjoy life as they fret over their cvs, [says] a preparatory school head.

Children are under such pressure from aspirational parents to do well in life, he claims, that they are brooding about how their achievements will look on a cv from as young as 10. The suggestion is that highly aspirational and hardworking parents want the same for their children: the trouble is that they transmit anxiety to them.

It was novelist A P Hartley who wrote, “The past is another country: they do things differently there”. It seems to me that we could simply substitute the word south for past, and it would apply to this case.

People love to attribute all kinds of habits, qualities and vices to the RGS and its student-and-parent body! Of course it’s a highly aspirational school, high-achieving and ambitious. As a school we have very high expectations of our students: parents too hope for a great deal from their children. And in that climate boys and girls thrive.

But we’re in no sense a hothouse. There’s a difference between expecting a lot (which we do between us) and requiring it at any cost: neither school nor parents are putting pressure on children in that way. Nor do I believe that everything our boys and girls do or achieve is regarded as another notch on their cv in preparation for adulthood.

Neither parents nor school get everything right all the time, of course: that would be too much to ask. Occasionally we have to warn a parent that perhaps they are expecting too much of their child: similarly parents will sometimes warn us to back off when their child is finding it a bit much.

But that’s about partnership, and balancing high expectation with a proper measure of humanity. My colleagues and I have on occasions expressed concern that boys and girls are signing up for some of our fantastic programme of adventurous activity and expeditions, such as Duke of Edinburgh and World Challenge, not out of a great ambition to challenge themselves physically, but because it will look good on their university application.

Where we suspect that less-than-worthy motive, we try to dissuade them, because this should be about education, not filling out forms: and the wonderful experiences that children are offered at the RGS, and which they invariably seize with both hands, are about enriching life, not impressing future employers (or even universities).

So our boys and girls have a wonderful time in sport, drama, music, debating – all those wonderful things we do (which I seem to list endlessly – sorry!). And we are in no doubt that the experiences gained there help them in achieving the hard-edged results that they need to achieve their lofty goals. I like to think it’s still done in a spirit of education, of exploring, facing challenge and having fun doing it.

None of this is easy to prove: but I think one demonstration lies in the fact that our students, their parents and even their teachers are still surprised and delighted by what they achieve far more than they are merely satisfied or even disappointed. They really do grab the opportunities offered and find that they can metaphorically fly. While the sense of adventure is there, I think we are managing to avoid the trap of merely building cvs.

I can’t believe it’s so different in the south. I don’t want to believe it, at any rate. I like parents! And, having been one myself, I understand the anxieties, the fears and the hopes they suffer – including that all pervading terror that they might just be completely messing it up for their kid!

In the event we parents muddle through, by and large, and simply do the best we can. And, in the case of independent schools, make a huge financial investment in that hope and that muddling through.

I think parents deserve better treatment, in truth, than being pilloried by independent school heads. But what do I know? It’s a whole new world down there!

Bernard Trafford

Headmaster