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Education: Perils of pushy parents

21 September 2012

The parent/teacher relationship is more likely to involve Apple iPods than apples these days, says Dennis Richards


HEAD TEACHERS, be warned. The fact that every successful Olympian dutifully paid tribute to parental support will inevitably up the ante among parents. How many of us imagined what it must be like to be the proud parents of Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee, gold and bronze medallists respectively in the Olympic Triathlon final? Competition among parents will be fierce: it is already. The red-faced dad who hurls abuse at the ref on a Sunday-morning under-8s footie match is but the tip of an iceberg.

Arriving at a primary school to deliver a morning assembly, I am warned by the head teacher to "watch out for Mikey". This is normally a signal to be on guard against some mischievous imp who thinks it is funny to offer outrageous responses to perfectly ordinary questions.

Eyes flick nervously round the room to identify the enemy, but all is peace and good order. There is an angelic child on the front row cuddling what looks like a cross between a monkey and an octopus. This, it turns out, is Mikey. Mikey is a stuffed toy. But Mikey is no ordinary stuffed toy. He has dug an allotment, been seen in the window of the pub, and had to follow health-and-safety guidelines and wear a hard hat to work at the quarry.

What started as an ingenious idea - the children should take Mikey home for the weekend and write his diary - has become a fiercely fought competition over which parents can give Mikey the most original experience. He has now, I am informed, been to Tenerife and photographed in the cockpit of the plane, apparently flying it. No surprise, either, that Mikey got an Olympic ticket when the rest of us failed.

The hapless head has gently reminded the parents: "We are talking a stuffed toy here." To no avail. Mikey mania is unstoppable.

Then she tells me about Reading Bands, where children on the path to being fluent readers are codified by colour. "Is Jimmy still pink?" is a loaded question these days, especially when Jimmy is ten years old. Jemima's mum reminds us that her offspring has changed colour at least five times since she was pink.

NAÏVE parents believe that a fancy-dress competition is a vehicle for a child's creativity. My daughter, in her mid-30s, has never recovered from the last Jubilee celebration. The village "Create a crown for a Queen" competition saw her labour long and hard with a shoebox, tissue paper, and loo rolls. One look at the multi-tiered, bejewelled tiaras in the opposition ranks, and we knew were doomed.

It is much the same story with the PTA summer fair. Why the "T" is still in the title is anyone's guess. No teacher, other than those who have been bribed or bullied, would be seen dead at the PTA. You could end up with some tricky decisions, worse than Solomon slicing up babies. The cake stall, for instance - bun fight, more like.

There are two categories of cake. Those that grace the cake stall, and those good enough only to be sliced up and sent to Refreshments. Imagine, in ignorance, condemning Mrs Miggins's famous sponge to be sliced. Her cakes have graced the stall for years. A teaching career could be wrecked with such a gaffe. The Miggins offspring might even be transferred to another school.

Meanwhile, back at the cake stall, children and parents hover to see which cakes are snapped up, and which are left looking forlorn and unwanted. Parents have been known to buy back their own cakes to avoid the humiliation of seeing them sold off for 50p.

Parents will stop at nothing to give their children a head start, even when it is hopeless. And Jacob's French is beyond hopeless. Arriving for for his first private lesson, he asks: "Will it be long?" Arriving for his second lesson, a week later, he announces his need to use the facilities. Clearly, his digestive system is in chaos. Not until a full ten minutes later does he emerge to face the music, as it were. On another occasion, he turns up with his friends.

With all escape routes blocked, Jacob finally attempts a few words in the language of Rousseau and Voltaire in such an appalling accent that he leaves us all begging for mercy. A compromise deal is called for. We end up watching the Tour de France, and honour is saved. Bradley Wiggins speaks fluent French: it might rub off on Jacob. At least, that is what I tell myself. And his parents. If he starts growing the Wiggins sideburns instead, they will ask for their money back.

IT IS not all bad. Teachers are doing very nicely thank you, a recent survey conducted by Netmums suggests. Designer handbags, expensive spa days, and giant bouquets are now being lavished on them as end-of year gifts. It has gone up a gear from wine, chocolates, and flowers. "The days of an apple for the teacher are long gone. Now it's more likely to be an Apple iPod", the founder of Netmums, Siobhan Freegard, says.

Since the most expensive, and somewhat pointed, gift I ever received was some deodorant, it is a trend I am inclined to encourage. Only one in 200 admitted giving so that a teacher would look favourably on their child. Hmm, I wonder. . .

And clearly some parents get it very right. I love the image of sports-mad children making a game out of anything. Cereal packets, biscuit-tin lids, a breakfast table, and a ping-pong ball: that, Andy Murray's mother says, was where the path to the gold medal began.

And there was the most memorable family moment of the Games, when the judo silver-medallist Gemma Gibbons looked to the skies in her moment of triumph, and said: "I love you, Mum", a message to her mother who died of leukaemia in 2004 after setting her daughter on the path to stardom.

It is said of us that we are truly grown up when we have ceased to be embarrassed by our parents. There were some very grown-up young people in the Olympics. And it is a Yorkshire secret that Mr and Mrs Brownlee have a third son, Ed, who is still at school and is a very promising athlete. I am looking forward to Rio already. Families - don't you just love 'em?

Dennis Richards is a former headmaster of St Aidan's C of E High School in Harrogate.

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