When your daughter will not eat or wants to turn her ears into huge, fleshy Polo mints, who would you turn to for advice: family or friends – or an anonymous forum on a website?
According to research by the headmistresses of the leading independent girls’ schools, most people don’t know where to find help. And that is why the heads have set up a website for parents that is dedicated to these issues.
“As teachers and heads, we have had thousands of girls pass through our care. There’s not much that we don’t know about dealing with girls,” says Jill Berry, president of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), which launched the venture.
Since the site was launched eight months ago, the response has been disappointing. The number of questions submitted to the panel of headteachers and experts is running at just six a month and the forum has been scrapped through lack of interest.
However, the website was redesigned last month to make it less “clunky” and more responsive.
So what sort of advice is dispensed and how long does it take? The FT decided to find out and asked four parents to submit questions. Their requests entered through an online form disappeared into the ether without acknowledgment.
Eight days later a reply was e-mailed to one of them: “Thank you for sending a question to the MyDaughter website. We have posted a response that you can access by following this link.”
Tina, who had asked the question, was surprised. “It was not made clear that my question would go up verbatim on their web page and even if they are not named, people could easily include details that would identify them,” she says.
She had asked for advice over the fact that a 15-year-old girl at boarding school was not eating properly and losing a lot of weight and mentioned that she herself had suffered from anorexia. “Can anorexia be inherited and what can I do to help?” she asked.
“The reply says talk to her, which I would have done already and then suggests I make an appointment with her headteacher. If your daughter found you’d been to the head behind her back, surely it would make things worse?”
There was no answer to the other three questions and on the ninth day the FT called the GSA’s media consultant to explain about the test. The following day answers to two more were posted on the website.
A mother seeking advice on dissuading her 16-year-old daughter from having her ears “tunnelled” into big loops was consoled with the fact that multitudes of other parents had similar experiences, including the headmistress who answered the query: “Each of my daughters went ahead – one had a piercing and the other a tattoo against my very best advice. Now in their 20s they tell me I was right all along,” she says.
“Her frankness is disarming,” says Fay Stanton, the questioner. “But wouldn’t it have been more useful to have heard from the daughters about their change of heart?
“The head suggests I offer my daughter some shopping money to buy new clothes or accessories to start sixth form with a fresh wardrobe. I’d be delighted to, but she prefers to shop for retro in charity shops.’’
The third question came from a mother who was reviewing her choice of day school for her 10-year-old daughter, after hearing that girls with eating disorders were made to dine on a separate table so staff could keep an eye on them.
Mydaughter.co.uk defended the practice: “Girls with eating disorders can find eating in public situations very stressful and sometimes allocating a separate table for them is a sensitive and helpful solution,” said the reply.
The questioner said she found the reply helpful and interesting. “I’m not sure I agree with them, but they have a lot more experience of teenagers and eating disorders than I have.
“However, they suggest I contact the school about it. That’s the last thing you are likely to do when you are trying to get your daughter into one of the leading schools in the country, “ she said.
Mrs Berry, head of Dame Alice Harpur School in Bedford, says the site has had good feedback despite being hampered by the original design that restricted its interactivity. “It has been running for eight months with no advertising budget and has 1,000 registrations.”
“A mark of its success is that we have been approached by a book publisher who agrees with us about the gap in the advice market.”