Editorial: What do parents want?

Who'd have thought it? OFSTED has discovered that most parents aren't particularly steamed up about academic standards. The vast majority think that their children's schools are doing a good job; only 6-7 per cent express dissatisfaction.

Results from the parents' questionnaire which is part of every OFSTED inspection also reveal - perhaps surprisingly - that there is no relationship between parental satisfaction and school quality. This could be because high-achieving schools and demanding parents often go together; and maybe low expectations lead some parents to be satisfied with mediocre schooling.

Such findings raise the question of what, exactly, parents want from schools. So far as choice of school is concerned, it certainly seems rare for the average parent to allow league table performance to override other criteria, such as distance from home, a friendly atmosphere, and a congenial peer group. In fact, research published last month in The TES showed that the social background and race of other pupils are crucial factors in choosing a school - especially among inner-city parents.

This tallies with OFSTED's findings that secondary parents' biggest worries concern school discipline and standards of behaviour. The greatest fear for many parents is that their adolescent son or daughter might go "off the rails". A controlled environment and a safe peer group, they reason, will make this undesirable event less likely. And they may be right, according to controversial research recently published by American psychologist Judith Rich Harris. She argues that peer group values are highly influential on children's behaviour and achievement - and are often more important than views of parents.

It all does suggest that the Government is on the right track in its efforts to target deprived areas for extra help and to encourage all social classes to value learning.

But it also makes the enormous effort currently being invested in value-added measures look rather beside the point - so far as parental choice goes, anyway. When it comes down to it, most parents want their children to go to School A, where the kids get plenty of homework, speak nicely and don't mess around on the bus. School B may be doing a better job with far more challenging pupils: but that's not what most parents really care about.

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