There’s a bit of a debate in the Maison Pettitt whether the intensification of grey follicles on Dad’s pate is a sign of mid-life allure or a steady march towards irrelevance, but what’s certainly the case is that I am asked more often than was the case how long I’ve been Head, and the sub-text is how long I’ve still got to run! (Answer: the in-tray is still full of things we want done and, whatever my children may say, there’s plenty of enthusiastic energy in the tank!). I am conscious, however, of the number of years, not because I’m counting them but because our youngest child was born in our first year and this year, the fact of his approaching the end of his days in the Junior School has helped me read even more acutely the questions I’m often asked about Highgate from the perspective of parents of ten-year-olds weighing up the choice of school; in particular, how will the School’s achievements, and the ambitions which underpinned them, be played out in the way my son will experience the remaining years of his childhood?
The question which has caused me to pause most in recent weeks is the, to me, surprising reading of homework in our Lower School, so Years 7 and 8: if there’s a lot of it, I’m told by one Highgate insider, it’s because the School wants to sit high in the league tables. I’ve become aware over the years that parents and others who love the children we greet as pupils are wired to make sense of the systems they see at work in school: exam results go up – and they have at Highgate gone up pretty steadily over the last few years, and last year in particular – and my child spends a lot more time on homework than she or he used to or than I’d like, and I make a connection using the evidence I have to hand. The fact that homework completed in the younger years will have little direct impact on the outcome of public exams which are, above all, a test of technique and stamina built up when pupils are much older, won’t wash here. The fact that we have cut homework from three to two homeworks per evening (plus some reading every night) to make room for relaxation and re-charging, for recreational sport and hobbies, for family time and reading, isn’t known to those who didn’t experience the three-homework routines of yesteryear. The fact that we brief all parents of Year 7s to monitor the tendency towards the perfectionism of eager-to-please pupils conscious of the unwritten (and often imagined) expectations of their parents who have helped them prepare for entry to a selective school.
And so it is that we’ve taken to explaining how unimportant and insignificant exam results are in telling us how a young person will lead a fulfilled and happy life: we choose in the UK to measure a quite narrow range of intelligences, principally those which we can measure easily, but to organise education to allow many other and different, but less easily measured, intelligences to grow – that’s why our young people spend so much time at school doing other things and learning things, not least intellectual things, which aren’t then examined.
And in this season of tests and interviews which sees the culmination of many months of prepping for some children – although we design those tests to be accessible to children who haven’t been prepped – we aim to reassure parents that we read their choice of a selective school to be a short-hand for the quality of a school’s educational vision, its seriousness of purpose, its ability to recruit and retain academically-minded graduates into teaching, but not as a signal that 11+ sifting continues: we all of us want our children to believe themselves capable of almost anything, and to be washed clean of the gendered or attainment-led stereotypes which have already started to seep into their young, pliable, receptive minds. Interest and motivation, not ability, rule OK!
That’s where we parents have work to do, and an impact to make. It’s desperately difficult not to be guilty of plonking our children on a parental travellator: with our educational experiences, our inherited hierarchy of good and elite universities and courses, our own successes (and slip-ups), our uber-close reading of termly reports, we have probably started to plot a preferred course for our children, even without realising it. But we can make a difference, and arm ourselves with responses and reactions which can help put up a firewall against the frenzy of competitive comparisons which our young indulge in as they explore the freedoms enabled by their smartphones and social media apps. First of all, we love them for who they are and without reference to sibling or peer or parent. Second, we’re more interested in how much they want to go to school and to discover stuff than by how well they do in tests. Third, where we look at progress, it’s how they measure against themselves rather than against others. And fourth, intellectual maturity is a stretchy, unpredictable thing – we all have different growing seasons. Fifth (I didn’t realise I had this many points when I started!), what we love and marvel at is not always contained on the margins of an exercise book.
Of course I know that the same parents who worry about homework in Year 7 or 8 are the same ones four years on that fret that their fifteen-year-olds seem not to be finding time to do what they’re told. But acknowledging parental anxiety, and giving it the deep-heat treatment of information and listening, is as critical in forging a happy childhood as being there as teacher, tutor, Head of House or counsellor for every child is. So this post is for parents everywhere: your tummy tells you what’s right to worry about, and I’m with you when it comes to the youngest Pettitt [insert surname!] – and it’s my pleasure and privilege to be here, listening and ensuring we interpret your love and aspiration in an experience which will see your children grow in happily, wonkily, confident, up-and-down-and-up trajectories from here to, well, to the future, by way of a full-length childhood.
Adam Pettitt, 20 September 2017