Pushy or assertive? 24.01.19

As a society, we are much more likely these days to complain about the service we receive in a host of different industries. The British ‘stiff upper lip’ to adversity is no longer the preferred approach, and in many respects this is a positive development as we are more likely to challenge bias, unfairness and abuse of power. However, some would retort that people nowadays go too far and that a refusal to accept anything less than perfection does more harm than good. One of my Headmaster colleagues found himself splashed all over the Daily Mail at the start of this term – not always a good thing. The headline read “Private school head urges pushy parents to stop complaining when their children are disciplined”. Does he have a point? Surely, when one considers the amount of money parents pay for a private education headteachers can’t expect to keep parents at arm’s length?

On the one hand, I appreciate many parental complaints as they can help us to improve the school. Although I know that my colleagues work exceptionally hard, they are human beings and therefore imperfect. We don’t get everything right, because we are dealing with young people with all their complexities and contradictions. When a significant mistake is made, complaining is therefore sometimes exactly the right thing to do. Much of what happens at Loughborough Grammar School is excellent, but we could always be better. I am always concerned to learn at a later date that an important issue has not previously been brought to the school’s attention. A serious bullying incident, for example, must always be confronted. Ignoring it and hoping that the problem will go away of its own accord is never the right approach.

However, Mr Grindlay in his letter to parents makes some good points about minor complaints. Teachers have only a limited amount of time available to them to plan lessons, mark work and support the boys in their learning and co-curricular activities. They continually have to reassess their priorities as there is never enough time to do everything that one would ideally want to achieve. I do think that it is a good idea to ask parents to reflect on whether a concern is serious enough to distract a tutor or subject teacher from their main role of teaching. I also agree with him in encouraging parents to resist the temptation to challenge the imposition of minor disciplinary sanctions. We won’t have photo evidence to prove a small issue of minor misbehaviour as our business is education rather than surveillance. If your son complains about a minor or other routine sanction being unfair, rather than pick up the phone to challenge a teacher’s judgement, perhaps spend the time reflecting with him on how life is not always fair, but that this minor reversal of fortune is not materially going to change his life for the worse.

The reality that things do not always go to plan, that we do not always succeed also needs consideration. If your son returns home having achieved a disappointing mark or grade, he may well choose to pin the blame on an external factor: ‘the teacher doesn’t like me’; or ‘we haven’t been taught properly’. Again, immediate communication with teachers to find out what the school are going to do about it is not a helpful response for your son in the long-term. If we hover around our sons, determined to intervene whenever the slightest disappointment arises, we are not helping them to develop the resilience that they will require in adult life, when things will go wrong. Our journey through life is rarely a story of linear progress, and failure is an important part of how we become better learners and people. Clearly remonstrating with our children at their (small or large) failures isn’t the answer, but neither is seeking to find an external source of blame. If your son has received a disastrous A Level Mock exam grade, a useful discussion is to help him explore what went wrong and how he might do things differently the next time.

The question for me is therefore one of proportionality. If your son doesn’t understand why he has under-performed academically, parents and teachers need to work together with him to put him back on the right path. It is our job as professionals to help diagnose the problem and suggest suitable remedies. Similarly, if a trend develops in your son’s gripes, we need to know about it so that we can intervene and help to find a solution. I know that many boys refuse to countenance the idea that their parents might contact the school at all – ‘how embarrassing!’ They need to understand that it is dangerous to willfully ignoring a situation that is not right. Most of our boys will become leaders of others and need to learn how to be politely assertive.

Over-reporting, however, does no favours to the school, which is distracted from its main aim of educating its pupils, or to your son’s emotional development. I know that this is difficult because I am a father myself! We are genetically predisposed to solve problems for our children: picking them up and patching them up as toddlers when they fell; feeding them when hungry; fixing their broken toys. However, at secondary school age, they are well on the path towards independence – one of the key goals of a Grammar School education – and independence requires them to take responsibility for their actions and to learn how to deal with their own problems. Therefore, as a first port of call, before emailing your son’s tutor to complain, discuss how he might best deal with the issue himself. How might he have a polite conversation with the teacher concerned to bring his problem to his or her attention? When such an approach is successful, it is hugely empowering to a young person and constitutes an important part of his emotional development.