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Saturday, 21 July, 2001, 06:58 GMT 07:58 UK
Parental values: Is anyone listening?
By Education correspondent Mike Baker
So, for most of us, the school holidays have arrived.
Children are delighted, teachers exhausted and parents have the mixed pleasures of looking after the kids for the next six weeks.
This week my youngest child left primary school. Ending 10 years as a parent at the local primary feels like one of those moments of no return, rather like hitting 40 (or so people tell me!) or meeting your daughter's first boyfriend.
So this past week, we've had our final school concert, the last sports day and, on Friday, the leavers' assembly.
All this set me reflecting on what, as a parent, I had valued most about my daughters' primary school.
To my own surprise, the first things I thought of were the many extra-curricular activities, especially the music and sport, provided by enthusiastic teachers.
Of course, the generally high quality of teaching was right up there too as was the fact that my children were happy at school.
On the negative side, I regret the fact that my children were in very large classes throughout and sometimes faced a change of teacher mid-year.
As I drew up my own list, I was interested to read the story on BBC News Online this week about how head teachers are increasingly turning to market research consultants to assess parents' attitudes to schools.
Schools are happy to hand over up to £500 to get this detailed information on what their parents are thinking.
Despite the school league tables, the surveys seem to suggest that test and examination results are rated only 10th in parents' list of priorities.
That ought to be a sobering message to those head teachers who get over-anxious about league table performance.
By contrast, parents said their top priorities were: Teaching quality, children's happiness, and school discipline.
This concern over "teaching quality" should be a warning to the government about the seriousness of the current problems of teacher recruitment.
If, as looks likely, the teacher shortage is more severe than ever in secondary schools in September, we can expect a sharp dip in parental satisfaction.
These surveys, based on secondary schools, contained a few other surprises. The availability of text books, for example, was well down the list at 18th whereas communication between school and parent was rated as high as 8th.
It might be instructive to compare parents' priorities with those of government ministers. The differences might help show which policies governments should be following at a time when all political parties claim they are acting in the interests of parents.
Last month a report from the think tank the Adam Smith Institute - A Class Act: World Lessons for UK Education, by Stephen Pollard - noted that, after years of state control and monopoly provision in education, governments all over the world were turning instead to "the empowerment of parents and diversity of provision".
In the US, New Zealand, Denmark and Sweden, the emphasis on parental choice is leading to new types of privately-run, publicly-funded schools designed to meet the needs of parents who are dissatisfied with the schools the state system offers them.
The schemes vary but they boil down to the fact that the taxpayer funds a child's school place whether they choose to stay in the state system or go elsewhere.
In Britain we have been moving slowly towards greater parental choice and when the new school year starts in September the government will publish its plans to create more diversity in secondary schooling.
But does all this really mean that governments are listening to parents? Does creating a wider variety of secondary school types actually increase the choice of schools available to parents in their local areas? I'm not convinced.
And how many sponsors of city academies will seek the views of the local community before setting the mission for their new school?
But, just for a moment, let us assume that parents' views were decisive in determining local school systems. What would they choose?
If the market research surveys are representative, they suggest that parents put a higher priority on broad themes, such as good teaching and discipline, rather than on how well funded they are or what category of school they fall into.
So pupil happiness, discipline, caring teachers, control of bullying, developing pupils' self-confidence and strong moral values all rated higher with parents than priorities such as the standard of facilities, access to computers and availability of books.
Even more pertinently for the government, parents put the choice of subjects on offer in a school at only 14th in their ranking of priorities.
So when choosing a secondary school maybe parents care less about what their children will study than the environment they will be in.
In short, they may not mind whether the school specialises in technology, the arts, or business, but they do care whether the school is well-run, orderly, free of bullying, happy and welcoming to pupils and parents alike.
Perhaps what they are saying is, quite simply, that they are happy so long as their local comprehensive is a good one.
So, instead of encouraging specific new categories of schools, the government might look instead at ways of allowing parents to say what sort of schools they want - including the option of keeping a standard comprehensive.
Mike Baker and the education team welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org although cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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