Last Friday morning, I went with two other parents to meet our MP to discuss our concerns about education, specifically the impact that increasingly pressurised testing is having on our children’s mental health. To be honest, our expectations were low – he’s a Tory back-bencher and we are all used to disagreeing with him on, well, everything really.
After explaining why we were there, we introduced ourselves, making reference to our professional and parenting experience, then told him clearly and honestly how we felt the education system was impacting on our own children. We made it absolutely clear that we held no grievance with our schools and that this was about the effects of government policy.
His initial response was to defend the government approach – “We’re falling behind, we’re at the bottom of the international league tables, we have to be able to compete in the global market, we had to take action” – but after saying it once, he didn’t return to the argument and seemed to be listening to what we had to say.
We’d met several days beforehand to talk through our concerns and work out which key areas to focus on. We’d gathered anecdotal evidence and concerns from other parents before we went and these fed into the conversation, making it clear that we represented a wider group and that our concerns were not unique to us. One of the other parents attending had researched Ofsted ratings for the schools within our constituency, which she dropped into the conversation as evidence that we were aware of the broader local picture.
We spoke of how unhelpful it was for the Education Secretary to brand concerned parents as not having high expectations for their children, of how, on the contrary, we dream big for our children – and are concerned that the narrow curriculum and high stakes expectations might actually prevent them from reaching their potential.
We’d also researched statistics on child mental health and testing, including Childline’s 200% increase in calls related to exam stress in 2013/14, linking it to his point about global rankings. We may be “falling behind” in global education rankings, but we are also consistently low on international studies of child happiness and wellbeing – what good is it to rise in the educational global rankings if it comes at the cost of our children’s mental health?
We spoke of how difficult it has proven to find reports of any experts in child development, or child mental health, or brain development and neuroscience who have anything positive to say about the new national curriculum and testing regime; plenty who speak against it, but no one to speak in its favour.
Our MP spoke of his ongoing commitment to campaigning for league tables to be abolished and also of how teachers need to be able to respond to children as individuals, who learn and thrive in response to different approaches. I’m not sure we convinced him to agree with our view, but we found some common ground.
At the end of our half hour, he promised to write to the Education Secretary to take up our concerns, specifically over assurances that child mental health has been taken into account. A letter confirming he had done so arrived on Saturday morning. We will, of course, let you know when the inevitably disappointing reply arrives!
We may not have achieved much in the grand scheme of things, but with every visit to an MP, with every letter to Nicky Morgan, with every group of parents who work together, our voice grows stronger.
If you want to go and see your MP about your educational concerns, here are our tips:
1) Email your MP and request a meeting with them. Tell them what the meeting is about but keep it broad – I just said I’d like to speak to him, with a couple of others, about our concerns regarding education. You can find contact details for your MP in this online directory.
2) Work with other local parents who share your concerns – when I initially emailed, I didn’t know exactly who’d be coming with me but knew I’d be able to find a couple of people. I had to send their names by email before the meeting. Going as a small group of 2 or 3 shows that this is wider than just one individual.
3) Collect anecdotal evidence from other local parents to show that you represent a wider group. Keep any info anonymous and try to avoid grievances against individual schools – we deliberately didn’t mention the names of our own or anyone else’s children, and we didn’t name any schools. Keep it focused on government policy, not specific schools.
4) Do your research – be aware of any educational issues specific to your constituency and do research to back up your concerns. Concerned about child mental health? Find some stats. Worried about SATS being too difficult? Find some sample questions. And write things down to take with you so you have your research to hand.
5) Get together a couple of days beforehand and decide on an approach. We decided to keep it simple and focus on one issue – the risk to child mental health. We also decided to start with our own experience rather than launch into an abstract attack on government policy.
6) What are you hoping to achieve? We kept our expectations low – virtually non-existent! – and decided we would aim simply for being heard. Our plan was to ask him what he could do about our concerns, but we didn’t need to as he offered to write to Nicky Morgan before we got to that point. But we were very clear on wanting him to ask her whether any child development/mental health experts had positive things to say about the new curriculum.
7) Hold your nerve – you have every right to be there, your MP is there to represent you and your views matter!
If you’ve got any other questions, feel free to contact us or ask below. And let us know how it goes if you do visit your MP – we’d love to know!
Watch this space for Nicky’s reply, though I suspect it’ll be a while in arriving…
Join our campaign and sign the petition here!