Inspectors all ears as parents speak out

Warwick Mansell & Athalie Matthews

OFSTED proposes new powers for voicing complaints and praise about schools, report Warwick Mansell and Athalie Matthews.

NEW powers for parents to voice complaints or compliments about schools and to speak privately to inspectors about bullying are to be included in proposals for a new inspection system, to be published on Monday.

The Office for Standards in Education wants views from parents which could then be taken into account by inspectors.

Parents will also get the chance to raise issues in private with inspectors, an OFSTED consultation paper on new inspection arrangements for 2003 will say. The TES understands that Mike Tomlinson, the chief inspector, is anxious to give parents more chance to make private complaints about sensitive issues such as bullying.

The murder of 10-year-old Damilola Taylor prompted OFSTED to reassess its approach to bullying, which rarely happens when an inspection is taking place. There is also a feeling that the overall ability of parents to influence inspection judgments is too limited. The only input for most is a pre-inspection meeting with inspectors, and a questionnaire on the school.

However, inspectors do have to take into account parental opinion on a range of issues such as how they rate the school's achievements and the quality of information they receive.

Parents also have the right to contact OFSTED or inspection contractors to raise concerns, but in practice few do. An OFSTED spokesman said: "We are looking at some kind of forum for parents, governors or others to raise concerns."

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations and a lay inspector, welcomed the move.

"Parents are an extremely valuable resource in assessing a school and can often guide inspectors towards problems which may be over-looked during the short time they are on the premises," she said.

"They are also a good source of information about aspects of the school which may not be immediately apparent in the classroom, such as the standard of medical care or morale levels."

Just 40 per cent of parents attend the pre-inspection meeting, chaired by the inspector and not attended by the school head. Parents who want to meet an inspector in private need to submit a written request.

The proportion of parents who raise a problem is roughly equal to those who express praise, Mrs Morrissey said.

Parental responses to school questionnaires show "high levels of parental satisfaction". OFSTED's 1999-2000 annual report said 96 per cent of parents who answered believed teaching was good and their child was making good progress.

More than 80 per cent believed they were well informed about their child's progress while 94 per cent felt confident approaching the school with a problem.

After the inspection, every parent receives a summary of the report and can request a full copy from the school.

There is no further interaction between inspectors and parents. Very rarely, parents who are unhappy take their concern up directly with OFSTED.

The proposals, which were delayed to follow this week's launch of the White Paper, will also offer greater scope to schools to influence the structure of inspections.

Heads and governing bodies will be given the chance to suggest what areas, beyond a central core, should be inspected.

There will be no suggestion, however, of inspections every 10 years, while the idea of having a member of staff on each inspection team has also been ruled out. The consultation will run until November.

John Chowcat, general secretary of the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisors and Consultants, said that a move to give parents more say made sense when schools were also being given more influence over the content of inspections. He said: "At the moment, there is only really the parents' meeting before an inspection for parents to have their say.

"Anyone expecting that the new framework will lead to a softening of the system, or a taking away of any of the rigour of inspections, is in for a shock."

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Warwick Mansell & Athalie Matthews

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