We sent out our first annual survey to parents just before Easter. The final version was extensively modified from my original proposal in order to placate the staff. It was naive and insensitive of me, but I honestly had not realised how persistent teacher-bashing has damaged morale. They are a wonderful group of teachers, supported by outstanding ancillaries. They are dedicated, hard-working and enthusiastic, but clearly they have been scarred by years of being told that schools are failing, standards are falling - and it is all their fault.
I had put in direct questions such as "Are you satisfied with your child's form teacher?" in the confident expectation of at least 90 per cent approval. Coinciding as it did with OFSTED's expressed intention of outing the alleged 15,000 bad teachers, my survey was seen as just another stick to beat them with. Any questions referring to particular members of staff had to go.
They were also concerned about the whole concept of seeking parental opinion. If what the parents want is at odds with the ethos and policies of the school, would we have to change to suit them?
Tricky one, this. One hopes that in the prevailing climate which encourages parental choice, most will have sent their children to us because they broadly like what we offer. Certainly, some of our most enthusiastic and supportive parents are those who have come from out of catchment. But many children still attend their neighbourhood school, and most of these seem to assess us not against what is currently on offer in other local primaries, but against school as they remember it from their own childhoods.
A small but vociferous minority want to confiscate all calculators, bring back regular spelling and tables tests and in one case "Janet and John". For those of you born since the Fifties, Janet and John were Peter and Jane's great-aunt and uncle. I am surprised that any parent of a primary-aged child would refer to them. They belonged to my generation - people who can remember liberty bodices and the night Grace Archer died in the fire.
Of course we are not going to respond to opinions like this by turning the educational clock back 30 years, but neither should we dismiss or ignore them. If we are confident in the teaching methods we use, we should be able to explain them to parents and demonstrate their value. We have a rolling programme of subject workshops for parents, and hope to reinforce these with booklets for those who can't or won't attend. We need parents as active participants in their children's education, but they have to understand what the children are doing and why.
Discipline is another recurrent concern. This is harder to explain than curriculum matters because of confidentiality. The perception that "they get away with murder" is hardly ever true, even metaphorically. Public floggings are no longer acceptable. In our school neither is public humiliation, but staff work hard in private, in co-operation with parents and educational psychologists if appropriate, to amend the behaviour of difficult children. ( I can't say "challenging" yet, but I will try.) My vice-chair was against survey questions that required a simple yesno response. "Give them a statement to respond to on a scale of 1 to 5, and count 3, 4 and 5 as positive." he suggested. Even without weighting the odds in our favour, 85 per cent of parents gave a 4 or 5 to the statement we all agreed was the most important: "My child is happy at school." This must give us a firm foundation for building the staffgovernorparent partnership.
Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands