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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
What parents think of schools
By BBC News Online's Gary Eason
Parents are telling secondary schools that they regard quality of teaching, discipline and the happiness of their children as the most important aspects of school life.
Schools - under pressure from the inspectorate, Ofsted, to carry our more self-evaluation - are turning to consultants to assess the attitudes of their pupils' parents.
One firm, Kirkland Rowell Marketing, says it is building up a unique overview of what parents regard as important - which turns out to be remarkably similar, whatever their social backgrounds.
It thinks the service ought to be free to schools.
One of its customers is Wye Valley School, a sports specialist college in Bourne end, Buckinghamshire.
The deputy head, Tony James, said schools were increasingly thinking in business management terms - did your "customers" think you were doing the right thing?
"The exercise hasn't shocked us. For example, we are told we could do better on homework - but almost every school in the country has parents who will say 'you are not doing enough homework'."
This is another aspect of the work - the school gets to see how it compares with others, which helps it to shape its improvement plan.
Wye Valley is going to repeat the survey annually, to monitor parents' perceptions of its development.
Information for Ofsted
Bedlingtonshire Community High School in Northumberland has used the service twice - the first time, as it turned out, a few months before an inspection by Ofsted, which sends out its own questionnaire to parents.
"The EPM survey gave them a hundred times more information than they got from their own because it's so much more detailed, with something like 200 parental responses - so we were able to give them some very high quality but very honest information," said the head teacher, Andrew Wright.
Mr Wright sees nothing wrong in schools turning to consultants - although if it were done as a "customer satisfaction survey" it would be a complete waste of time.
"It's about perceptions. The things you think are important as a school leader aren't quite as high up for parents," he said.
"Their views are based on their own children's experiences, whereas my view is more on how departments are operating.
"It's not that you restructure the school based on parental opinion but it's extremely important to know what they value, because if there is a significant mismatch there is a potential for conflict.
"If a school is going to function within its community - and we are a community school, and we really mean it - then what the adults in the community value most forms part of our values."
His school is "truly mixed", with some high fliers - four Oxbridge entrants last year - but also a quarter of pupils with special educational needs, and in a similarly mixed area socially.
"This is not a leafy suburb. When we have parents' consultation evenings we don't get 100% turnouts. By using this monitoring we get to know the views of parents we wouldn't otherwise hear from."
Kirkland Rowell has collected the views of 18,196 parents for 78 schools in England and Wales, and one in Scotland - including half a dozen single-sex schools and a few independents.
Managing partner, Mark Chaplin, said 20 parental priorities came up again and again as he was developing the basic concept, so they are used as a baseline for the questionnaires.
The alternative, for a school wanting to evaluate itself, was to have a deputy head spend weeks devising and sending out a questionnaire, then trying to interpret the resulting data without any particular expertise.
But Mr Chaplin said his experience was that parents often gave misleading scores to different subject areas.
For instance, religious education was almost always marked down. One school might think it had a problem, but he was able to tell it that everyone was in the same boat.
And he can tell them that in every school he has been to, girls do more homework than boys.
"They get their own score and what schools normally score, so they can see where they are significantly better or worse," he said.
What has struck him is the similarity in responses.
"Although the parents differ from one school to the next in terms of the demographics - for example, how many have university degrees or want their children to go to university - in terms of what they want there's very, very little fluctuation from one school to the next," he said.
"The demand for this is massive. There are still some head teachers who don't want to be told what the parents think, because they 'know best'.
"But I think I have got a very strong audit of the country's education system."
Mr Chaplin said he charged a school about £500 to do a survey. But some could not afford this, so he was getting together references from satisfied head teachers with a view to putting in a bid for central funding.
"It should be free to the schools," he said.
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