In his seminal 2011 talk at Learning Without Frontiers, Sir Ken Robinson argues that a school can have all the facilities, resources, international trips and sports programs imaginable, but if the fundamental human connection that helps a young person to learn isn’t working for them, their education will suffer.
Schools are hives of learning relationships between students, teachers, parents, academic support professionals, administration staff and management. Every one of these relationships can impact your child’s learning, so how on earth are you supposed to know if your family’s connection with the school is thriving, damaged or broken, and whether it’s time to move on?
First of all, give yourself permission to ask the question. Caring whether your child is enjoying their learning makes you a good parent, not a helicopter, tiger, lawn-mower or any other sort of garden management tool, carnivorous predator or short-range aircraft. Beginning a calm discussion about what is and isn’t working for your child helps to improve our education system for everyone in it. Schools, and the professionals who enliven them, are not static — things can and do change — so try to resolve problems before cutting and running. If, however, any of the five core tenets of a healthy relationship are broken — Emotion, Communication, Trust, Hope and Timing — it might be time to move on.
Despite the fact that making decisions based on emotion has traditionally raised eyebrows, our feelings are very informative. Just as you know in your bones when the milk has gone off and that opening a door in a horror film is always a bad idea, you can feel when something is upsetting you, and when your child is not thriving.
First and foremost, talk to your child. Growing up is complex and there are a million and one reasons that they might not be laughing as readily as they used to. Whether it’s romantic complications, finishing Harry Potter, medical surprises, climate anxiety or self-imposed comparison with a sibling, young people have an awful lot to deal with. Changing schools will not cure every problem and it should, in most cases, be a last resort, especially if your child sees their school as a positive support network.
Second, trust your gut. How does your child feel about going to school every day, and how do you feel about sending them there? Excitement and dread are telling emotions, and if your child is consistently down on school days then it’s time to move on. If you’re hesitant to ask about your son or daughter’s feelings, try tracking what they say about school, how they describe others at school and which words keep coming up. Use their own words to start the conversation and you might find that the chat is more empowering than cringeworthy! If family opinion is lining up on mutual dislike of the school experience, it’s time to move on.
The way we communicate with each other shapes our relationships more than anything else. If parents and teachers communicate openly and productively, there’s very little they can’t achieve.
A key aspect of positive communication is respect, and that goes both ways. Sending emails to teachers at 2am will not make you friends in any school, and it’s never wise to call or email in the heat of the moment. You’re also dealing with highly trained and dedicated professionals who consider days when they get to go to the bathroom between 8am and 4pm to be a massive success.
In fact, lawyers bill for every email answered and doctors charge in 15-minute intervals, but teachers are offered no such incentive. Teachers are happy to communicate because they’re cheering on your child as much as you are, but bear in mind that they’re professionals who deserve coherent, relevant and thoughtful communication.
That being said, if all or most communication with the school leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth — if emails go unanswered for days at a time or get bounced around a management labyrinth, important details are changed without notice, staff are rude or disrespectful, feedback is ignored, decisions aren’t adequately justified, or the whole tone of the school is condescending or dismissive of your knowledge of your child — then it’s time to move on.
Our kids spend 35 hours every week over more than a decade with an array of other people who, while talented professionals under heavy scrutiny and regulation, are not usually known and trusted personally at the start of the relationship. Building trust takes time, but it’s fair to be concerned if something has damaged your existing trust or prevented it from developing in the first place.
If your trust has been damaged, try to articulate what’s going on — has someone said something disrespectful? Is your child cared for and equipped to deal with surprise situations at school? Do they feel comfortable asking questions in all their classes? Do you, as a parent or guardian, feel supported in flagging problems with the school?
Once you’ve articulated what’s not working, raise it with the relevant people. It might be as simple as checking that your email address has been entered correctly in the database, that your child’s teacher writes short emails because English is their second or third language, or that your resident adolescent has been curating which letters make it to the fridge door. It may be weighing on you every day, but schools are busy places — they may not know that there’s a problem until you say something and, in most cases, educators are keen to fix anything that’s inhibiting a student’s learning.
If, however, the school you’re dealing with isn’t transparent, then you have good reason to be distrustful. If you couldn’t pick the principal out of a line-up at the end of the first term, it’s time to move on.
Do you currently have well-founded hope that things will turn out well with your current schooling relationship? Or are you fantasising about the school up the road with its Finnish-trained principal, scuba team and automated library? This is a tricky thing to evaluate because we can get caught up in our grass-is-greener imaginings without looking at what’s causing us to fantasise.
Would the heated pool really improve your child’s experience of school or is the problem that none of the teachers in your current school relate to your child? Is it that they’re not getting a chance to play their favourite sport and feel stifled? Have they become morose since art club was cancelled? Fantasise away, but make sure you’re getting to the core of what’s making that grass look so green, and do the research with other parents and schools, so that you’re not uprooting your child for an equal or worse experience.
If considering your child’s current school makes you think only of the opportunities they’re missing, or how much your child has withdrawn since they started there, then it’s time to move on.
We all know that Mr Right can be Mr Wrong if the timing is off, so too with schools. The school you chose when an older sibling was 12 might not be the right place for your younger one ten years later. Schools are bundles of relationships, so small changes can have radical impacts. It might be a change of principal, policy or priorities, but if the school that was a dream come true has become a source of anxiety, it’s time to move on.
By doing this audit you might conclude that your child is unhappy for reasons totally unconnected with their education. But by having the conversation, perhaps you’ll stumble on something fundamentally wrong with their day-to-day education and, in those cases, you’ll realise that you’re a short-range aircraft after all — a rescue helicopter, in fact!