Sue Laidlaw’s Educational Questions and Answers

My Sheen Village - Schools and Education - Sue Laidlaw's Q and As - Sue Laidlaw

Sue Laidlaw’s
Educational Questions and Answers

Sue’s passion for teaching began as a five year old when she first declared that her ‘dream’ was to be a teacher! Sue pursued this passion, via a degree in Education, into a number of teaching posts at State and Independent Schools, including 10 happy years at Putney High School. 

After the birth of her first daughter, she started working with children on an individual basis and, over the past 18 years, has worked as an educational consultant with over 5,000 children.

This breadth of experience and her commitment to assisting the individual needs of each child is the cornerstone of her education consultancy as it stands today.

See Sue’s Profile



How do I get a happy balanced holiday with my kids?


See Sue’s article: School’s out for Summer in our Just Kids Magazine



How much time should my children be spending on academic work at home and extra-curricular activities outside school?


There is a false belief that children must be constantly kept busy and that we must mastermind every hour of our child’s day. That all their efforts should be directed towards their academic subjects. This not the case. Children need time to do nothing, to play and to allow the secret artist within themselves to develop.

It is a question of balance.

Helen Dillon, the visionary gardener with the most photographed garden in Ireland, states:

“Creative things happen when you’re just walking about letting your mind run free, when you’re just playing . . . ’
House and Garden magazine, June, 2011

Similarly, as we all know, our best ideas come in the bath, when the whole body and mind relaxes.

A famous naturalist attributes his lifelong fascination to childhood summers spent in Scotland. There was so little do that, to cure his boredom, he spent weeks watching insects, creating hides and devising simple experiments.

Children have a deep and crucial need for freedom to mooch around devising games, playing out imaginary dramas and making things, thus coming to terms with their world. Yet a growing number of them end busy days at school by returning to a home-life packed with clubs, subject coaching, sports events and homework, all in the false belief that children must be constantly kept busy. But how will these children ever learn to happily occupy themselves, let alone use their creative abilities?

It is a credit to the ingenuity of heads and staff that many creative opportunities still exist in schools when the timetable is increasingly crammed full of subject demands. Some particularly visionary establishments actively promote creative thinking and these are well worth seeking out for a totally balanced education, exercising all parts of the brain and feeding the soul. These schools understand that even the most academic child needs the therapeutic and enriching effects of drama, music and other creative stimuli to keep a holistic balance right through school life and into adulthood.

Whatever creative opportunities are, or are not, offered in school, it is possible with a little thought and effort to create conditions at home which will nurture and encourage creative contributions from our youngsters. Older children too and even adults will gain from many of the activities, with a little modification. Even if you believe you have not a creative bone in your own body, here are some simple, practical things we can all do to benefit our children.

First, though, we have to be aware of the messages we give them through our own attitudes. How many of us have called, “Stop wasting time and practise your piece!” when a child is improvising on the piano. And who can resist the opportunity to give a spelling critique when shown the germ of a story or poem in the making!

Creative thinking can only too easily be discouraged, however helpful we are meaning to be. Acknowledgement, respect and praise for effort and ideas whilst keeping a blind eye to the limitations that we as adults so clearly see, will play enormous dividends. The resulting pride and huge enthusiasm will naturally lead to more concentrated efforts.

If you have enough room, set up an art corner with masses of materials – paints, colours, glues , scissors, sequins, where a child can just fiddle around making things. An elasticated laundry bag can store packaging and bits and pieces for models. An elasticated laundry bag can store packaging and bits and pieces for models (A hot glue gun for adult use is excellent for sticking together box models). Remember that it is the PROCESS that counts, and not the end product, so do refrain from demanding a wonderful picture at the end of a session.

Drawing can be a serious tool for thinking, a mind-opening preliminary to writing (illustrations drawn after writing is finished, miss out on a wonderful planning aid). A special writing area can be tremendously helpful: provide not only a variety of notebooks and pens, but plain paper of all sizes, scissors, crayons, pencils, paperclips, a stapler, and stiff card for covers, so that story books can be built from scratch. A pre-school child will simply make marks, and then seriously ‘read’ them back to you, creating his own story. And we must not neglect the unbeatable influence of a ritual bedtime story, feeding minds, vocabularies and imaginations (all ages can benefit from being read to).

There will be hours of musical fun if you festoon the inside of a tent with suspended kitchen items, saucepans, crinkly packaging and plastic bowls, with a selection of wooden and metal spoons to tap and scrape (a clothes horse makes a good alternative.) Sounds need not be loud – great control and musical sensitivity can be developed by producing soundscapes for magic and mystery, a poem, or lullaby. Children who have these experiences will be the ones who play their musical instruments with expression and sensitivity.

Search for versatile pieces of material for your dressing-up box, newspapers, doilies, large safety pins, old hats, inviting so much more imagination than shop-bought costumes. Allow for hours of fulfilling dramatic play to follow. Encourage a group of children to create their own games and act out their own dramas, rather than automatically organising a game of rounders; this will bring surprising rewards as they learn to entertain themselves happily, needing less of our attention and direction.

We must foster our children’s questioning minds and value their opinions, to enable them to grow in confidence and self esteem, keen to explore and unafraid of taking risks and trying out ideas. We must awaken their sensitivities to the world, and allow them to express their feelings and sensations freely ; this will enhance their lives in many ways, not least in their ability to create.Above all, we must not mastermind every hour of our child’s day. Ursula Kolbe writes:

“Take time to watch. Observe children’s absorbed attention . . . their sheer delight as they play with colours and shapes . . . appreciate what they do. Most importantly, give children time – time to look and ponder . . .”

Rapunzel’s Supermarket – all about children and their art.

As the great music educator and composer, Carl Orff, wrote about his approach to creative music-making:

“I believe that there is something of an artist in every human being. This something can be destroyed or educated. My educational aim was always to seek out and awaken this secret artist in everyone.”

We too must search for the secret artist in each of our children.

How to choose the best Senior School


My daughter is in Year 4 and we are beginning to think about Senior Schools for her to attend.  We are in the fortunate position of being able to consider both State and Independent options (thanks to her grandparents’ generosity!) We do not know where to begin- can you help?


Sitting in my office each week, I am able to listen and understand the many parents that have worries and concerns that they wish to discuss, regarding the education of their children-

  • How do I find a suitable school?
  • Does he need tuition?
  • My daughter is very sporty. Where would be best for her?
  • I want to find a local school!
  • I am worried that, although he is academic, he may not perform well on the day.
  • What about the interview?
  • If she’s good at Maths but not good at Comprehension, will it matter?

However, it is not surprising that , living in these parts of London, the over-riding concerns that are voiced are often with regard to which is the “best” school for my child.

We all know that every child is different. Realistically, we all have strengths and weaknesses. It is on this basis, that we listen with an understanding, but professional, ear to the requirements of each child and the concerns of each parent.

We are very fortunate indeed to live within travelling distance of so many wonderful schools. Many of them have nationally renowned academic records frequently at the top of league tables for GCSE and A level results. As a family, we have had the opportunity to experience life at such schools, first hand. There are other schools in the vicinity that are clearly less academically robust, smaller and may, at first glance appear to offer less.

Through many years of work in education, initially teaching for a decade in top London day schools and then consulting and guiding parents through the maze of school choices available, one salient point is very clear. We, as parents, want the best for our children; we want them to be the best that they can be, academically, in sport, music and art and, hopefully, even more importantly, to be happy rounded people. This can only be achieved by finding the right match of both child to school and school to child. Crucially, this can sometimes mean putting aside our own preconceived goals and expectations.

One of the many privileges of the work that we do is having the opportunity to meet up with parents and their children at different points throughout their education. Originally, many parents come for a consultation to seek objective advice and clarity in their own thoughts. On countless occasions, the small shy boy that we met aged six returns as a strapping six foot Rugby player who has gained confidence in the school that was right for him. Sometimes that school is an academic power house engaging the most academic brains, other times it is a small local school where a small fish has developed into a happy rounded fish in a small pool taking on positions of responsibility that would not have been afforded to her elsewhere.

In short, the best thing that we, parents and advisors, can do for our children is to be realistic and honest about the school choices that are right for each one as an individual. In London, there is no doubt that competition is often fierce for places in schools. For independent schools, multiple applications are necessary and options clearly need to be covered.

However, once we look clearly and realistically at what type of environment would suit our child best, it becomes easier to see through the haze of dinner party conversation and the like. Early visits to schools help to make things clearer and the first stage is often to consider whether you, as parents, feel comfortable and happy in the surrounding of the school. If you feel at home, the chances are that your child will feel the same. Academic suitability is obviously vital but there are many other factors that are important, too.

Round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square ones are very likely indeed to grow into confident, happy young adults – with the best results and qualifications that they could possibly achieve!

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