Pushy parents endanger children, Eton head warns

The Times, 18/05/15, a growing number of children at elite private schools are under acute pressure to fulfil their parents’ ambitions rather than make their own choices, according to the headmaster of Eton College. HMC member Tony Little features ahead of his interview for the next issue of HMC's Insight magazine. HMC member Clarissa Farr, headmistress of St Paul's Girls' School is also referenced.

Some parents want to live their lives through their children, creating a template for their future from exam results to university entrance and career choice.

Tony Little, in a valedictory interview as he prepares to retire as headmaster of Eton College, appealed to parents to stop “beating themselves up” and to accept things that do not accord with their plans. His comments will fuel the debate on mental health pressures facing today’s teenagers from exams, body image, self-harm, social media and other sources, which The Times has highlighted in its Time to Mind campaign.

Mr Little said that Eton, along with other leading independent schools, was “stepping up a gear” in its pastoral care — although he said this was to strengthen existing preventative measures, rather than in reaction to problems arising.

While most parents who sent their children to Eton were supportive, Mr Little said that there had been a polarisation, with a minority increasingly controlling of their children’s lives.

“There has been a growth in some parents vicariously living their lives through their ambitions for their children,” he said. “Some parents see where they want their child to be and when that doesn’t happen, or the child doesn’t want it to happen, it causes significant stresses.”

He added: “The majority of parents are supportive and surprisingly relaxed, but the range seems more marked; for some it feels like a bereavement when something goes unexpectedly wrong, and others recalibrate and pretend that things just don’t happen as they have.”

In his interview, to be published in June by Insight, the magazine of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, Mr Little said that schools needed to make parents see the harm their expectations could cause.

“Education by schoolmasters has always involved education of parents,” Mr Little said. “Parents shouldn’t be beating themselves up, stuff just happens in life. As I go on I get more and more simple about these things. You have to accept the way they are, but some parents . . . try to remake situations, rewind, recalibrate.”

For the past year Eton has had a full-time clinical psychologist to support boys and to research mental health issues. Pupils already have access to a psychiatrist specialising in adolescents.

“There are more pressures on young people than ever before — not least virtual pressures — and there has been a shift from responding when things go wrong to promoting good mental health,” Mr Little said.

“We are not plugging a gap, it’s something more creative. We are thinking proactively and over time about where the pitfalls are and how can we drive good mental health better. How do we make it go right rather than just act when it goes wrong?”

Private school heads are often wary of criticising parents, although last year Clarissa Farr, head of St Paul’s girls’ school in west London, said that many parents showed “frenzied anxiety” about success, leaving their children unable to cope with failure.

In his interview, Mr Little said that British universities needed to improve their pastoral care for undergraduates and were far behind their counterparts in the United States.

“There is a fundamental dichotomy between US and UK universities,” he said. “They have their own problems but at least they try and see the students in the round.”

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