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Keeping an eye out for rough ground

I want to hold an annual complaints' evening for parents," I announced to my headteacher. She is a wonderful woman, deeply committed to openness, consensus management and partnership between staff, parents, pupils and governors. And sometimes I have an irresistible urge to see how far I can push her.

"What a good idea," she beamed. "Organise it."

Like most of my ideas, this one has developed gradually as a result of several different factors. In the first place, we need a selling point for this year's meeting for parents. Last year I drew what in annual meeting terms may be regarded as a crowd - that is, more parents than governors - by sending an abusive letter accusing them of lack of commitment and complacency. I got away with it, but I don't want to try it twice.

The idea of inviting parents in to discuss previously-identified areas of concern is based on pre-OFSTED meetings. My own school is too small and therefore too unprofitable to have attracted an inspection team yet, but I have been to two such meetings at secondary schools as a parent - and found them useful and constructive.

Both were strongly supportive of the school and the staff, and scrupulous about not airing individual grievances or identifying members of staff. However, the questions asked by the inspector, based on the questionnaires previously completed by parents, gradually teased out a consensus of concern about late marking of homework, over-generous extensions of coursework deadlines disadvantaging students who handed work in on time, lack of privacy during parent-teacher evenings, etc.

For once I kept my mouth shut. With a fourth child going through the state secondary system, there are inevitably things which have niggled me for years, but it seemed disloyal to air them, however anonymously, in front of strangers. I should have told the staff years ago, but they never asked. I want to ask our parents before OFSTED does.

The idea of the survey and follow-up meeting also fits well with what looks like being the focus of our attention as governors this year - measuring school effectiveness. The staff tell us that our national test results, good as they are, are only a tiny part of the overall picture.

But how else do we gauge success? We have a mission statement, aims and objectives, policies and curriculum plans, but are they producing the desired effect? One way of finding out is to ask our customers - the parents. An annual survey would enable us to assess not just how well we are doing, but how well we are perceived to be doing, and whether we are improving our performance.

I drafted a questionnaire based on the pre-OFSTED model and a successful survey regularly conducted by another school in the county. I also drafted a covering letter to parents and passed it to the staff and governors for comment at the next governors' meeting.

I deliberately wrote both these papers quickly, and presented them unrevised so that I would not feel too strong a sense of ownership. I wanted to be open to suggestion. Just as well really.

My fellow governors took the survey, and me, apart. Too negative, they said, inviting criticism, assuming that everyone wanted to complain. There should be more encouragement of positive comment.

They are quite right, so it is back to the drawing board. The good news is that they want to go ahead with the survey, and most of them volunteered for a working party to get it right. What a team.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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