An Inspector Writes

Bill Laar

Q. When we are inspected it is inevitable that our children fall below national standards in most subjects. No matter how hard we try we cannot really make up the difference. How do we explain that to parents without adding insult to injury by suggesting that the blame lies mainly outside the school?

A. I assume you work in an area of social and economic deprivation, where parents' personal experience makes them sceptical of the value of education and they lack the resources and assurance to play a role in their children's schooling.

Many educationists would argue that under-achievement and deprivation are not synonymous and point to substantial evidence suggesting that even in the most disadvantaged contexts, schools, especially where they win the support of parents, can be transforming influences in terms of children's achievement.

Equally, there is ground for believing that a majority of children who achieve below national standards live in adverse and impoverished circumstances. It is almost inevitable that most such children will fall below national standards.

Inspection summaries, describing such achievement, will make for dispiriting reading that might drive many parents to one of two chilly conclusions: the school is failing their children, or the children are less able than many of their contemporaries.

I suggest you consider some of the following: * As a staff, make an account of the wide range of experiences that you provide, not tellingly reported by Inspection, that illuminate children's lives, extend horizons, nurture interests, enthusiasms and pursuits; the expeditions, ventures and projects unique to different classes, the myriad out-of-school activities.

Such things may be most memorable and formative for children. Certainly many parents will value them as much as the achievement that inspection emphasises.

* Try to define for parents the academic progress the children have made since their first days in school. Such a process of assessment will illustrate the often significant gains that children make in their first years of formal education.

* Use inspection findings as the basis for an ordered, practical programme to improve achievement in targeted subjects. Establish whether children are being intellectually challenged, precisely what pedagogical strategies in relation to differentiation are used throughout the school and how effective they seem to be; whether reading competence, especially, can be extended. Let the parents know about this, at least, and involve them as far as possible.

* Consider ways in which a new generation of parents and children can be supported in terms of pre-school literacy and numeracy.

* Consider using the inspection report as an opportunity for a constructive debate with parents about their children's education. There are always some parents ready for a fresh beginning, especially if encouraged to become involved with the affairs of their children's class, as distinct from the needs of an entire school. Help parents to accept your joint responsibility and vital interdependence in terms of the children's education. Try, hard though it may be, to get children to own books from an early stage through sponsorship and book clubs.

* Finally, if the report emerges as you anticipate, consider accompanying the summary with brief but clear written comments, highlighting any subjects where you have matched or nearly matched national standards, and those areas where children's efforts have led to positive comments.

Bill Laar is a registered inspector. Write to him co The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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