A frank message to a caring parent – January 2023

Dear Fellow Parent, 

I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you some facts, ideas and opinions, and thereby offer one or two suggestions which you may find useful. Despite my experience and the expertise that I have gained while serving in various positions in the secondary education sector in England since 1993, I will always consider myself a parent first and a teacher second. 

Before COVID-19, there had always been constant changes in the English education system and all the pandemic has done is to widen the already huge chasm in education between children from different backgrounds. It must be said that, in my view, it is not just about rich and poor. From what I have seen, how much parents value education is more of a determining factor in their child’s success than how wealthy they are. 

I would like to briefly touch on three points on issues in the education system at present, and the effect they may have on your child.

  1. The legacy of COVID and variations in how it affects different children
  2.  Industrial actions and the effect on travelling, students’ education and health. In this case, the potential effect of teachers striking in the spring of 2023
  3. How the rise in cost of living may affect how much the parents invest in their children’s education

Legacy of COVID-19 on some school children

I don’t know if you’ve ever called an organisation and a recorded message comes to tell you that they won’t be able to attend to you on time, as, due to COVID, staff are working from home and all that. Sadly, so many businesses – including government departments are still hiding behind the pandemic, and giving that as the excuse for their laxness. Yes, the pandemic is real; however, some could do better than they are doing, despite COVID.

Now let’s be more specific about school children. For me, what is more worrying is the social skills that young people have missed out on over the two years of COVID due to lockdown and school closure. This is more important for their future development than the teaching they have missed. For a young person, two years of little social person-to person interaction, as opposed to digital chat, is potentially damaging in the long term.

I’ll explain the reason why I said the teaching that young people missed worries me less. First of all, the children are being educated and are learning all the time – even those who received very little or no teaching during lockdown. Learning goes on all the time, even if it’s not the school work or the national curriculum. Yes, we should not ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of young people are behind in the three Rs – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – and also in their academic curriculum. I accept that this is damaging for those young people and if we (the government, the school and the parents) do not do something about it, it is not only damaging to those young people but also to society in the long term. As far as exam grades are concerned, if all children are equally affected, it will not have any effect on how many students get the top grades and so on. The issue we have is that young people are not affected equally. It varies very widely how much children are affected due to the school they go to, where in the country they live and perhaps how much parents are able to support them. Just to expand a little on the last point – parental support. Depending on the age of the child, the subject, how much time the parents have and so on, the parents may need to find an external source of provision to support their children.

What we have is children who receive very little teaching from school, but who were able to get additional support do well despite COVID. Observation tells me that some schools coped very well and used the sometimes meagre resources they had to provide well for their pupils – both during and after the lockdown period of COVID. On a personal level, my own children are lucky not to have been affected very much by COVID. Although my son decided to change from Geography to History, after more than one third of the GCSE course had already been taught. We had to find him a tutor to assist him in catching up, and thankfully he thrived and got the top grade in the end. 

Just before I finish this part, I would like to mention   something that came up in a conversation with one of my colleagues not so long ago. He is teaching as a tutor as part of the government catch-up schemes after the pandemic and he told me that half the children do not turn up for the lessons. This is a scheme that is costing the school and the government a lot of money. I will be blunt on where I put most of the blame on that. The parent(s). If you are reading this, I know with almost absolute certainty that you are not one of those types of parent. The kind of parent that can be bothered to read my rather long piece of writing tend to be those of us that people often, wrongly, call pushy parents! I call us concerned and caring parents. We do not hesitate to put our money where our mouth is. I’m not  just talking about the investment in terms of cash. Yes, money is part of it; however, for many parents, the investment of time, physical and emotional energy in striving to get the most out of our children’s education – teenagers in particular – is more costly than the cash.

It is hoped that the government, with the support and cooperation of schools, NGOs and perhaps education charities, will do something to address the growing chasm in the education divide in society. In many cases, it will be the parents who do most of the heavy lifting to support their offspring to fulfil their full potential at GCSE, A-level and beyond.

Rising cost of living and potential effect on children

It is very depressing to hear in the news the level of poverty that some children are enduring in Britain. I am of the view is that much more can be done to help the very poor – especially the children. To be factual, a lot is being done already; however, as a decent and compassionate society, there is still plenty of room for improvement.

The present global economic situation is perhaps worse in Britain than it is in most other industrialised countries. The high cost of shelter, mortgage and rent and ongoing industrial action makes things more challenging than perhaps in other comparable countries.

The thing is that that children seem to be less aware or concerned about the effect of the economic climate on their parents. Children still expect you to fill up the refrigerator with food, and replenish the ever diminishing loaves of bread and snacks – especially if you have a teenager. There is a situation in my own household at the moment, as my son has just decided to become a vegetarian, and he is toying with the idea of being a vegan. When my son told his mother to stop buying meat, as I am the only one who cares much about it, I was not overly concerned for two reasons: I eat very little red meat anyway and also this will save us money. The challenge comes when we realise how challenging it is to find other protein outside meat and fish that teenagers find edible.

Back to the main issue, I will again start by taking a philosophical approach. Whilst recognising that economic situation is very challenging to the vast majority of people irrespective of their income level, it is also the case that the talk about recession creates more fear and anxiety than is merited.

Industrial action and the effect on children’s education

Speaking philosophically, and in my view, the order of basic human needs is Health (including food), Shelter and Education. Sadly, two major events at present – the industrial action and economic challenges – high cost of food, heating, mortgage and rent on one hand, the strike actions by nurses, doctors and teachers on the other, cut right to the core of the three basic needs. This will potentially have an adverse effect on children’s education. Again, there will be variation on the extent to which different children are affected. The one that has been going on for the longest is the transport workers strike, which has the least effect on children’s school education.

Let’s focus our attention on education for a moment. As the legacy of the pandemic is still lingering, teachers going on strike is being added to young people’s life experience, all in a short period of time. It is a waste of time to speak about all the politics of it here. I have no interest in discussing whether industrial actions are justified or not, I just want to speak as a parent. This is about paddling your own canoe – well, as a parent, with your children in that canoe. The thing about children is that they grow so fast. Your daughter or son will only be 16 or 18 once. What they achieve in those formative years will shape their future.

Please don’t even start to talk about exam resits, as it doesn’t work. According to a Times  article a few years ago, at GCSE, for example, between 7 to 11% improve on their grades at GCSE in Maths and English, respectively, when they take them for the second time. Despite the fact that, rightly, the GCSE in particular has been made to be more challenging in the last few years, the content is still such that, with a focus and the right level of support, your child does not have to be a genius to do well at GCSE and A-level. Even with the proper exams, almost a quarter of A-level grades that are awarded are either A or A*, and this is in proper exams and not teacher assessment. Having said that, one must not take anything away from the dedication of many young people and the support of teachers and parents in achieving top grades. We have to remember that it is not correct to expect everyone to get an A grade in everything. It is all about a child fulfilling their potential, as a C grade will be quite an achievement in some cases. What young people achieve in the crucial four-year period of between the ages of 14 and 18, tends to determine the path of their future. These years are also a critical period in their emotional and social development. When we look back in years to come, we can always say one of two things. Some will say that, despite the pandemic that started in 2020 and economic challenges that followed two years later, we tried our best and it worked out okay for our children. Others will say that these two events severely affected our children and they did not do as well as they could have done. It’s not a black and white situation, as there is a wide grey area in the middle. All we can do it try our best and see how our children react and what they make of the opportunities that exist and the challenges they face. As I always say, when it comes to the teenagers fulfilling their potential, we parents are just a catalyst, but nevertheless an important one in this rather complex chemical reaction. Unlike in chemistry, we are a catalyst that often gets used up!

To the Success of your child

Idris Musty