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Now the school and university years are over

One of our senior editors reflects on the lessons she’s learned during 20 years of her children’s education

My son has just loaded his most treasured possessions into his ancient Volvo estate. The haul included two bikes, a turbo trainer, bike pump, pots and pans, pictures, sound system, books and clothes. He slammed the car boot and after a hug and a wave he was off to his new life in Bristol. He’s got his first graduate job as an engineer and after years of sharing damp, tumbledown student houses with friends, he’s moved into his own rented flat. He’s as happy as Larry.

I’m definitely an empty nester now, something I never felt when my children were at university and came home for the holidays. But even though I miss them, I’m thrilled for my son and daughter and the exciting times ahead.

So now the school and university years are over I’ve been reflecting on the last 20 years. Yes, there were ups and downs but everything turned out fine in the end. Here are some of the lessons I learned about education:

When your children are young, choose a local school. It’s easier for everyone if the school run doesn’t involve a long, fractious journey. Parents don’t have to spend half the day in the car and children can invite their friends to play after school. It’s different when they get to secondary school. My daughter loved her hour-long bus ride to school with her friends. It was a time to chat and catch up and made her feel very grown up. If your child’s teacher says ‘can I have a word?’ at the school gate, don’t assume it’s going to be something negative. Teachers often make eye contact a big deal. Remember that some children find it uncomfortable and just because they’re not looking at you doesn’t mean they’re not listening. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t make it into the prized A team for sport. It doesn’t mean anything. One of my son’s contemporaries was, like him, always in the C team and now he’s in the GB rowing squad. If your child is being bullied, tell the school straight away – even if your son or daughter tells you not to. Encourage your children to read as much as possible. I’ve never begrudged spending money on books – and my two have turned into voracious readers. Choose your battles. My son always refused point-blank to get dressed up as his favourite book character for World Book Day so we fixed on a compromise. He agreed to wear a flying suit and claimed his favourite book was a biography of Amelia Earhart. When it comes to GCSE and A levels, discuss your children’s choices with them – but don’t dictate. Let them decide, with guidance from their school of course. The same goes for UCAS personal statements and university choices. If your child doesn’t settle at university or thinks they’ve made a terrible mistake, offer as much support as you can. Write emails and letters, speak to them regularly, send treats (food, coffee and posh soap go down well) and visit if you can. Keep communicating and don’t just assume that everything is fine. Your children’s lives won’t always go smoothly but rest assured, coping with disappointments and difficulties will help them to become stronger, more resilient and mature. You’ll be proud of them, I promise…

Children’s book of the month

Little people big dreamsLittle People, Big Dreams: Muhammad Ali by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and Brosmind (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, £9.99)

Age: 6+

The Little People, Big Dreams series has built up a huge following since the first book was launched in 2016, with more than a million copies sold worldwide.

The title stems from the fact that women like Maya Angelou, Coco Chanel and Frida Kahlo began life as small children with big dreams – which they went on to fulfil.

Up till now the books have celebrated the achievements of famous women who accomplished remarkable things in their lives. But now, after requests from young readers, men are getting in on the act. This year the eye-catching series will feature a host of positive male role models for the first time.

The aim is to teach children the importance of ‘working hard and dreaming big’ so it’s fitting that the first man in the series is the celebrated civil rights activist Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time.

Like the earlier titles, this vibrant picture book brings history to life on the page. The authors pride themselves on focusing on famous people’s childhoods and making their achievements accessible to children and in this one we learn about Ali’s childhood in Kentucky, his boxing career, his famous sayings (remember ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’?) and his determination to speak out about civil rights and racial discrimination.

If your children haven’t discovered the Little People, Big Dreams series yet, they’re in for a treat. The books are fun and accessible, with inspiring messages and colourful illustrations, and capture the imagination of young readers in a unique way. They also feature a fact section at the back, as well as a list of further reading.

Little People, Big Dreams: Muhammad Ali is published at the beginning of February. Next up will be a book about the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking, which will be out in March.



Going up, going down


Going up

Oxbridge offers. Great news from several selective state schools in London. Brampton Manor Academy, a free school in Newham, one of the city’s poorest boroughs, announced that 41 sixth formers have received offers from Oxford or Cambridge. Executive principal Dr Dayo Olukoshi puts his pupils’ (many of whom are in receipt of free school meals) success down to the school’s ‘strong culture of high expectation’. At Harris Westminster Sixth Form, opened in 2014 and run in partnership with Westminster School, 38 pupils there received Oxbridge offers. Principal James Handscombe says the school makes the most of its central London location, with a programme of high-profile visiting speakers and monthly assemblies held in Westminster Abbey – ‘so that if you go to Oxford and Cambridge, you’re not intimidated by the buildings.’

Debating and CCF. Ofsted is introducing a new category of ‘personal development’ to its inspection framework in a bid to counter criticism that it is too results focused. Chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman said the addition was to recognise schools that help pupils ‘build resilience’ through extra-curricular activities such as public speaking and DofE. She told The Telegraph: ‘It's not about any one thing, it’s about having a range of opportunities so people can discover their talents and interests’.

Going down

Private schools? In Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem, a book to be published next month, historian David Kynaston (educated at Wellington College) says the time has come to reform the private school system. He told The Guardian: ‘We are approaching the end of free-market orthodoxy and there is an anti-privilege mood around. It is hard to see how the private schools can escape from this unscathed.’

Good news for cephalopods. An Oxford college has taken octopus terrine off its menus because the dish is too adventurous and could intimidate students from less privileged backgrounds. The move was in response to a first-year student who said she was ‘bemused’ to be served it as part of the freshers’ start of term dinner. College president Baroness Jan Royall said: ‘I have asked our catering colleagues to ensure that the first dinner at the beginning of term features dishes everyone is comfortable with.’ Somerville students called the move ‘tokenistic’ and ‘patronising’; the octopus was unavailable for comment.

Chalk & Chat

Look out for our Spring edition of Chalk & Chat, the parenting magazine of The Good Schools Guide. In this issue we explore how to talk to your child about sex and relationships, what are the best educational apps, how to spread yourself equally among your children when one of them has SEN and what are the best new children’s books for the season ahead, just to name a few. When we set up this magazine, the idea was to examine the ups and downs of everything parenting brings. Is it OK when parents pick their children’s friends for them? What is it really like to work for one of Britain’s most family friendly employers? And what can you do to smooth the path of moving from overseas? These features, and more, cover not only education but the whole gamut of parenting. We hope you’ll enjoy the insight, knowledge and customary wit. Please let us know what you think and do share your thoughts on social media too, using the hashtag #chalkandchat.

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