Parents deserve better than being pilloried by heads and Sir Michael Wilshaw

Sunday Times, 26.07.15, mums and dads can’t win: one minute they’re branded feckless; the next they’re called pushy. They deserve better. Former HMC Chairman, Bernard Trafford, headmaster of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle features and HMC member Anthony Seldon, outgoing Master of Wellington College is referenced.

Parents have been getting it in the neck again. The headmaster of a leading public school has accused them of being “clueless narcissists” who have no idea how to bring up their children.

According to Sir Anthony Seldon, outgoing master of Wellington College in Berkshire, parents are damaging their offspring by robbing them of their independence and stunting their development in their drive to create a mini-me.

At a conference this month, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, was the one taking aim at mothers and fathers, accusing them of being “feckless” and suggesting they should be fined for missing parents’ evenings.

And earlier this year, Gerard Silverlock, headmaster of King’s College Junior School in southwest London, suggested overambitious parents were fuelling mental health problems among young children.

Highly aspirational mothers and fathers were passing on their anxiety by brooding about how their children’s achievements would look on a CV, according to Silverlock.

“It is understandable that parents want to see their youngsters achieve the same kind of success they have achieved,” he said. “They become worried and all the pressures in terms of exam performance are appearing at younger and younger ages.”

But one headmaster who will not be joining the line-up of critics is Bernard Trafford, the headmaster of Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The former chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference of leading private schools has come to the defence of parents, arguing that the potshots are unfair and unlikely to achieve much.

“I think parents deserve better treatment, in truth, than being pilloried by independent school heads and Michael Wilshaw,” he says.

“I like parents. And, having been one myself, I understand the anxieties, the fears and the hopes they suffer — including the 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.”

Trafford, who has been at the helm of the £11,643-a-year school since 2008, has put a deliberate focus on pupil mental health and how to maintain it. In September, the school will host its second conference on the subject.

“What has struck us more than anything in the past 12 months is how much parents and families are increasingly turning to school staff for advice and support when they suspect their child has mental health issues,” he says.

“As we talk more about emotional wellbeing, so parents are more prepared to talk to us about it too. Understandably they are scared and frightened.”

Staff at the grammar school are receiving specialist training that will help them to identify and deal with mental health problems.

Trafford is the first to admit that the high academic standards at schools such as his, and the high ambitions of staff, parents and students themselves, can come at a price.

“We have a lot of the same issues as other schools, around self-image and self-esteem and so on,” he says. “But in high-achieving schools and aspirational households we have that pressure [to obtain high grades] as well.

“I have some children and you meet the parents and you think, ‘These parents are doing nothing wrong.’ The child, for whatever reason, feels that pressure to achieve and not to disappoint. It is not that parents are telling the child they want their money’s worth over the breakfast table. I just don’t buy that.”

According to Trafford, schools have a responsibility to deal with anxiety or depression — and their manifestations, such as self-harming — by putting in place practical measures, not just “wringing their hands”.

He has on occasion had to warn a parent they are expecting too much of their child but adds that, similarly, parents have sometimes asked the school to back off when their child is finding it a bit much.

“That’s about partnership, and balancing high expectation with a proper measure of humanity,” he says.

And of course modern parents have to deal with a pace of change that families a few decades ago could not com–prehend.

“Parents feel besieged by the ‘other life’ their children live through social media, alien to them but the bringer of so much angst,” he says. “It is difficult — the pressures are there all the time. Digital media means that if children feel under pressure, or are having issues with other pupils, they don’t leave it at the school gate. It follows them digitally.”

Trafford isn’t in the habit of telling parents what to do but one of the simple rules that could make a real difference, he thinks, is to ban mobile phones from the bedroom.

“What are we doing answering emails at 11pm and what are our children doing reading nasty messages on social media at 2am?” he asks.

“We as parents should be firm about saying, ‘Put that phone on the hall table and leave it.’ We should ban technology from the bedroom, for our own mental health as much as our children’s.”

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