On the passing of GCSEs without systematic study or help from parents

I sometimes think that my daughter must be the only teenager who worked hard to achieve her GCSEs, just as I must be the only parent who put in a lot of effort to help her do so. According to practically all our friends, their children did no revision or studying at all and it is a miracle that they managed to get strings of As and A*s. The parents also generally claim to have done nothing to help the children pass their examinations; they were themselves too busy to do anything to help and so their child's academic success is a mystery to them. These are all children who attended school. It is not to be wondered at that when I hear similar claims being made by the parents of children who were home educated, I raise my eyebrows a little. Yet more children who did not study systematically or revise and yet got good grades. This is very mysterious, because both my daughter and I had to work very hard to achieve the same end. Perhaps she is particularly slow witted and needed a lot of extra coaching!

Now I have no idea about other parents and children, but in the case of many of those known to me personally, these stories of nobody doing much to get the kid to pass a lot of GCSEs at high grades are not really true. Parents who claim to have done nothing seem to forget the tutors they engaged for years, the attending church in order to get the kid into a good school, the piano and ballet lessons, endless visits to museums, rows with the kids to make them do their homework, helping them with their coursework, forbidding them permission to go out during the run-up to the exams so that they revise and all the rest of the efforts which they made.

Why do parents tell these fairy stories to each other about all this lack of effort on both their part and that of their children? Partly I suppose because nobody wants to appear to be a desperate and pushy parent! Much more impressive to be laid back and cool and not to beaver away neurotically for years just to get your kids into a good university. Telling other parents that your kid didn't revise or study and yet still passed a clutch of examinations is a subtle way of boasting. They are saying, in effect, 'My daughter is so talented and bright that she didn't need to work. She simply absorbed the content of the GCSE courses easily and did not have to revise it just before the exam. What a brain-box!' Of course, it is also laying up a brilliant alibi for yourself if your child does muff up her GCSEs. You can simply say, 'Yes, I told you she didn't do any work!' It's a win-win situation really.

How likely is it that a child would really pass GCSEs without studying hard and putting in a lot of work? Not very likely at all I would say. One picks up all sorts of knowledge casually just from ordinary day to day reading of newspapers and magazines, watching television, surfing the net and so on. This means that anybody concerned with the environment, climate change or even science in general is likely to know that plants grow by taking water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combining them together in process known as photosynthesis. This is simply the sort of general knowledge that any educated person might be expected to possess. It is not hard to see how anybody, even a person who has never studied for GCSEs or anything else might acquire this sort of information more or les automatically without anybody telling them to do so. However when I meet a teenager who is able to set down the correct balanced formula for this process, that is to say;

6 CO2 + 12 H2O → C6H12O6 + 6 O2 + 6 H2O

then I am pretty sure that she has made a conscious effort to learn it by heart. What possible reason could anybody, even somebody passionately concerned about trees and the environment, have for wanting to know the chemical formula for glucose? This is most definitely not the sort of general knowledge which one picks up casually in the course of reading about plants. It is not the sort of thing which anybody apart from a chemist, biologist or teenager swotting from an examination would ever know! It is of course a vital piece of information if one wants to pass a GCSE in biology, which is pretty well the only reason anyone ever learns it.

The same can be said of the minerals which plants need to grow effectively. Knowing the importance of these minerals is general knowledge which most of us have. The gardeners among us could also talk about NPK fertilisers and be aware that these contain potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. We might even know about their role in eutrophication. We are unlikely though to know the precise proportions for a balanced NPK fertiliser and the symptoms of deficiency in plants of one of these elements. Again, to get an A* at biology, you must know this.

I make no bones at all about the fact that I am myself a pushy and ambitious parent who made damned sure that his daughter studied and got a clutch of good GCSEs. Both of us worked extremely hard towards that end, which, as I say, sets me apart from most of parents whom I know or of whom I have heard. There may perhaps be teenagers who learn for fun about Snell's Law, the formula for photosynthesis and the precise reasons for the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, but I think that they are as rare as rocking-horse shit. About as rare in fact as parents who do not do all that they can to ensure that their children pass these important examinations at the age of fifteen or sixteen. For the rest of us, it is hard slog involving a good deal of work for both parent and child.