For the past few months I have taken some time out from the daily blogging and journalism and spent time travelling around the country for a project looking into school accountability and what parents really want from schools.
It has been a fascinating experience. Working with the national parenting charity Family Lives
, I took part in focus groups in the North East, London, Midlands and the South West. We also polled 1000 parents on a range of issues from how they chose schools, how successful they were getting into the schools they wanted, how happy they were once their children were enrolled and what more information they want from and about schools, twenty years after league tables and Ofsted inspections were first introduced. The report is published here
today by the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning
We started with an open mind, prepared to find a wide cross section of opinion – the parents were chosen to represent all age groups, social classes, regions and school types, including private and state. Possibly the most surprising conclusion was the clear unanimity across a wide range of issues. Parents are discerning, knowledgeable and realistic about what is best for their children - exercising choice but within clearly understood limits.
They are using test and exam results, and Ofsted inspections, to help them make choices but proximity to home and other ‘softer’, more impressionistic local knowledge and information about teaching quality and general reputation is even more important. Most (91%) are successful in getting their children into the first choice of schools, and broadly happy (90%) with provision once their children are enrolled.
They have a clear image of what a good local school should be like; a place with good teaching, well managed behaviour and a broad curriculum which develops pupils intellectually socially and emotionally.
And they have a strong instinct to work with their children’s schools, either directly with the teachers and the head or by getting actively involved as PTA members or governors, if they have concerns. Over 80 % said this would be their preferred course of action if things started to go wrong. Only 6% said they would consider trying to start a free school under the government’s new initiative and there was strong support for parents being able to trigger an Ofsted inspection if a critical mass had the same concerns.
However there are other messages for both policy makers and schools. Parents also want more information than they are currently getting – on a wide range of issues from behaviour, bullying, their children’s progress, social and emotional development and well being. They want more regular reports (than once a year). Termly reports either by e-mail post or via the school website are the most popular option.
And all the evidence we received suggested that, regardless of how much information central government provides, parents will still tend to trust and look to local sources of information. School websites were ranked the most popular source of information by our poll and schools could use them more effectively to communicate with parents, seek their views and allow them to share information with each other.
This would be particularly helpful to the parents of children with Special Educational Needs who are trying to match up specific provision with their child’s circumstances and go beyond “global data” into detailed descriptions of the school environment, the make- up and capacity of specialist teaching staff, out of school provision and the extent to which the school culture is “inclusive”.
Some schools may not like the idea of opening a window on their inner workings in this way, and developing more user friendly, responsive websites will demand resources and investment , but as one father put it , schools need to be brave and ‘face the world’ at a time when social media is being used extensively in other walks of life.
Finally we asked all parents ‘What skills qualities and qualifications should an educated 19 year old have today?” and the answers revealed the concept of a rounded education that goes beyond simple academic qualifications. Exams results matter, and literacy and numeracy skills are hugely important, but scores of parents talked of the need for children to develop confidence, self esteem, social and practical skills like cooking and managing a budget.
They wanted young people to have options beyond simple academic paths if those weren’t appropriate. Only 25% of parents polled had heard of the English Baccalaureate and parents in the focus groups expressed concerns about what a narrowing of the curriculum may mean for their children
In a country where pupil performance is more closely scrutinised than anywhere else in the developed world, parents appear more conscious than ever that their offspring are also individual human beings whose success in later life may be facilitated by a clutch of good exams grades and qualifications but may also depend on how confident they are, how they relate to others, their social skills, ability to communicate and take care of their own personal well being.
It would take a courageous school in the current climate, when narrow academic success seems more highly prized than ever before, to sell itself as an institution where personal and practical skills are of as much value as knowledge and qualifications, but schools which have high expectations of their pupils’ academic performance, celebrate their development into empathetic, respectful young people and communicate that openly and proudly to their communities, may find themselves to be the ones that most parents will choose after all.