Mike Piercy, education consultant and former Head of The New Beacon, gives his opinion on tutoring

There’s nothing wrong with ambition; indeed it is to be praised. Encouragement of ambition is inherent in parenthood and teaching.
I have something of a problem with prizes for all, however, where everyone’s a winner. As parents and teachers we wish to encourage children, to boost confidence. That said, they see more than we may realise: they come to recognise gratuitous praise; where prizes are universal and not meritorious.
In an assembly some years ago I asked my pupils about ambition: what were their aspirations? The most memorable response was from one who aspired to be CEO of a well-known multi-national company. The fact that his father held a senior position in that very organisation was no coincidence. I applauded his ambition then asked how he hoped to achieve it. His answer was logical: do well at GCSE, likewise at A Level, proceed to a good university working hard towards a 1st class degree. I shall watch and wait.
At some point in a child or young person’s development, effusive encouragement should gradually dissipate giving way to realistic expectations – ideally by mutual agreement. Depending on the individual level of maturity, I would suggest somewhere around the cusp of Year 4 and 5. With this evolution will, of course, come some disappointment which, in my view, is not a bad thing. The growing pressure of expectation must go hand in hand with growing academic demands – the pressure of national exams – the denial of which is unrealistic.
I frequently used a mantra with parents when discussing their offsprings’ onward path – academic and otherwise: ‘Expect much of children, they will surprise; expect little, they will disappoint.’ The two expressions reveal a delicate balance. Tip too far either way and personal development,

growth, decelerates. A wise (now retired) Head of a very selective Grammar School when asked of the greatest challenge he faced in his school replied that it was those pupils who had been over-coached, drilled by parents and 11+ tutors within an inch of their lives. They arrived at the school stressed and exhausted, tutored beyond their unforced capability. Behavioural and mental health concerns often ensued. Many foundered and failed.
So where should the line be drawn between ambition and realistic expectation? Overcooked steak is dry, lacking in texture. Overcooked children lose their emotional shape and structure – we are dealing with delicate development. My advice to parents is to acknowledge and make a clear distinction between their own ambitions for their children (sometimes dismissing the advice and experience of the school) and what is realistic for the precious, individual child.
And so to tutoring. The neighbours’ children aspiring to grammar schools does not mean it is the right path for your children. Their school and teachers will have a more objective, experienced view. Successful entry to an academically ambitious school does not always mean a successful academic outcome – we are dealing with sensitive, soft tissue here.
Robert Browning articulates the dilemma succinctly – and beautifully, of course:
‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?’
Let’s encourage ambition while being honest about our – realistic – expectations.

Mike’s book, ‘Careering’ – a journey through his life, which also offers advice to parents – will be published by Troubador on 28 August and can be pre-ordered. mikepiercy@hotmail.com

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