It’s at this point that I find it useful to re-visit an article written a couple of years ago by Sean Coughlan, the BBC’s Education correspondent. Despite the fact that my daughter is now in second year at university, I still managed to get it wrong this week by trying the ‘you can only do your best’ line. So, in the interests of family harmony, I offer you:


1. There are only two things that parents can ever say to teenagers taking their exams. The wrong thing. And the wrong thing. Whatever you say is going to irritate them. Accept it. Even accepting it, that’s irritating too.

2. “Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal, it’s only a bit of paper, and whatever happens we still…” Wherever you’re going with that, it’s not working. Think hole, stop digging. If you say, “Don’t worry,” this is interpreted as really meaning, “Relax, you’re in a ship heading at full speed towards a colossal iceberg.” But if you say it “really matters”, that translates as: “Why are you piling all this pressure on me now, like I really need any more?” Wrong and wrong. Again.

3. “Remember how well your sister did.” Few things could be as provocative. It sets off a series of explosions all over the house like in a Sunday afternoon war film. Never mention siblings, dubiously-gifted cousins, unbearable child-prodigy neighbours.

4. “How can you do any work with all those screens running at once?” The generation gap is now measured by the number of screens being used simultaneously. It’s safe to write this because no teenager will ever read this far down an article. They are too busy playing with Instagram.

5. “At least the exams are much easier now.” This little gem could dig you into a corner tighter than a Hatton Garden deposit box. Allude vaguely to “proper” exams like O-levels and then say: “It’s great that these days they more or less give out the answers as well as the question papers.”

6. “It’s lucky you’ve only chosen easy subjects.” Whooosh! So inflammatory that entire postcodes are laid waste.

7. “You can only do your best.” Patronising, with subtle shades of disappointment. It sounds like: “You can only do your best… for someone who would lose an argument with an earthworm. But well done you.”

8. Stupid ‘brain food’ ideas. Like it’s going to make a difference, eating fish pie the night before an exam. Or a bunch of bananas or gallons of water to rehydrate the brain. Advice on sleep can also be annoying, oscillating between “Make sure you keep revising” and “Don’t stay up all night revising.”

9. “Do you want me to test you on a few things?” This begins with good intentions, in the same the way that wars and major humanitarian disasters probably begin with good intentions. But you’ve stepped inside the dragon’s cave. You’ve offered to help. What could go wrong? Apart from everything? You’re going to ask the wrong questions, or give the wrong answers. And you’ll ask them in the wrong way

10. “You’ll kick yourself if you’ve only missed out by one mark.” Really, really irritating. Guaranteed to leave them angry until August. Infuriated teenagers will add it to the bulging file marked “I’ve tried my hardest but nothing is ever good enough for you.”

Sound advice, then; but hopefully it is safe for me to wish good luck to all our Year 11 and 13 students who begin public exams this week.