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Ma and Pa not sold on power

What do parents think about the Government's attempts to turn them into consumers in an education market place? Researchers at Oxford Brookes University asked them in 1987. They have just asked them again and report on their findings.

In 1987, just before the passing of the Education Reform Act, we surveyed parents' views on the changes the legislation would bring. We - a group of researchers at Oxford Brookes University - were particularly interested in their attitudes towards testing, opting out, and parental involvement in education.

These elements of the Act were all related to the Government's aim of beefing up the parent's role as consumer in an education market. Testing was to provide the information on which parents could judge schools and thereby decide where to send their children. More parental involvement and more parent governors were supposed to make schools more consumer-oriented - more responsive to parents' wishes.

That survey (TES, December 11, 1987) revealed a mix of attitudes and emotions. It showed that parents felt happy about their children's schools, which were overwhelmingly seen as welcoming, but that they were ambivalent about the need for more involvement or a greater role in governance. However, they did seem to want clearer information about their children's progress and the testing proposals were therefore welcomed.

In the past eight years, the idea of parent-as-consumer has been promoted hard. League tables have materialised, the Parent's Charter has been published and requirements concerning publication of test results and school reports have emerged. We wondered how much parents had been influenced over this period and decided to repeat the 1987 survey. We added questions and broadened the database from 300 to 659 parents (living in 50 education authorities) but used structured interviews as before.

The results are intriguing, showing a softening of some attitudes and a hardening of others. Parents now seem to be less attracted by the idea of power or influence in schools, but they are becoming more positive about testing and less enamoured of opting out.

We asked how much involvement parents should have in deciding on matters such as the curriculum. Only 3 per cent thought there should be less involvement, while 39 per cent believed there should be more and 58 per cent judged that the balance was about right already.

Views on opting out have changed. While in 1987 opinions were evenly split between those in favour (36 per cent) and those against (33 per cent) the consensus has swung to the "against" lobby. Nearly 40 per cent are now against, with half of these feeling strongly about the issue, while only 27 per cent are now in favour. But a large minority are still indifferent (see chart 1).

Although 27 per cent are now in favour of opting out in principle, when asked whether they would like their child's school to opt out only 14 per cent said "yes". In other words, some parents seem to have accepted the Government's opting-out arguments, even though they are happy with the current organisation of their child's school.

Opinions have moved in favour of testing (see chart 2). Almost half (44 per cent) thought that children should be tested only in the basics, while 20 per cent felt they should be tested in all national curriculum subjects.

Did parents think results of tests published in the school's prospectus help in making a choice? For the choice of primary school, 64 per cent of parents thought that the information would be valuable, while 33 per cent thought not. For secondary, 70 per cent considered that the results would be valuable, while 27 per cent thought not.

More than 40 per cent of parents did not, however, look at league tables. We asked those who didn't why they didn't (see chart 3). If parents had studied the league tables, we asked them how the information had affected their view of their child's school. Seventy per cent said that it hadn't made them think any differently; 24 per cent said that they now thought more positively, and 6 per cent less positively. In only 2 per cent of cases had the information made them seriously consider changing their child's school.

However, 46 per cent of parents with primary-aged children said that the league tables had affected their thinking about a choice of secondary school. (Since many parents had not looked at the tables in effect only 27 per cent were claiming that league tables had affected their choice.) Parents were positive about the value of school reports. (see chart 4). The vast majority (95 per cent) said that schools gave them a chance to talk to teachers about the report and 86 per cent said that they accepted this opportunity. The great majority of these parents (94 per cent) found the consultations useful and informative. However, about one in five parents said that they wanted more information.

The difference between the views of parents of children in grant-maintained schools and those with children in LEA schools - with the former seeming to be slightly more critical - is statistically significant. There were no substantial differences between parents in the primary and secondary sectors on the issue of reports.

Around one in 20 parents claimed not to have received a report on their child in the past 18 months. Given the legal requirement to provide reports, this finding may indicate nothing more than the fact that the "pupil post" is imperfect (and that some children are adept at forging their parents' signatures).

Our findings also suggest that parents are still confused about the national curriculum and how children's progress is being reported. Fewer than half of our interviewees (48 per cent) felt that it was clear which information in reports related to the national curriculum. Although 70 per cent claimed to know what an attainment target was, subsequent questioning proved their self-confidence to be misplaced. And 83 per cent could not define "key stages" correctly.

Surprisingly, nearly a third of parents (30 per cent) would like to be a governor at their children's school, though they gave a number of reasons for not being one - lack of time being the principal one, and lack of confidence also figuring largely. Interestingly, those who would like to be governors had "harder" views on testing and on opting out (more likely to be in favour of both) than the general sample. However, the small number of actual governors we trawled (23) out of the general sample were much "softer" in their views.

These differences between the attitudes of would-be governors and those of actual governors are interesting and ought to be researched further. They may suggest that when parents become governors they understand more clearly the aims (and problems) of teachers and headteachers and accommodate their values. An alternative explanation is that the would-be governor is the more traditionally-minded parent that the Government has envisaged when promoting parent power, who has ultimately failed to be elected by other parents.

On the question of parental involvement, one third said that they would like to be more involved with their child's education (the proportion was higher in GM schools 43 per cent). Of these, one in three wanted to help in class, and a similar proportion wanted more chance to talk to teachers. However, only one in ten sought increased involvement through a better parent-teachers' association, perhaps reflecting diminishing trust in formal structures of involvement and a greater expectation of openness and informal communication. Many felt that parents should be more often invited to offer special skills in the classroom or in extra-curricular activities.

Only 40 per cent had read the Parent's Charter and more than half had not considered it to be useful. Some did, however, say it gave a clear explanation of their rights and others were grateful for the information on the special needs statementing procedure.

Lastly, we wanted to assess whether certain much-discussed features of school life actually reflected parents' wishes. We asked how far they agreed with the statements: "There should be daily collective worship at school" and "There should be compulsory team games at school". But as charts 5 and 6 show, enthusiasm for these issues clearly differs.

There is little evidence that parents want to run with the baton of parent power or more formal involvement - indeed that desire seems to have declined. However, parents do appear to want easier access to hard information about their children's achievements and to be able to talk more easily with teachers about their children's progress. They seem to find teachers approachable and 93 per cent see schools as welcoming places, virtually the same as in 1987. When asked about their child's school, parents are usually overwhelmingly positive, in contrast to their responses when asked about education in general. But the quality of communication about achievements is an insistent theme, and this is clearly the reason that tests are so popular. That parents are more equivocal about league-table information indicates a desire for straightforward, jargon-free reporting on my child's progress in preference to comparative data.

"Parent choice; a survey of 659 parents", by Robin McClelland, Gary Thomas, Peter Vass, Julie Webb. Available fromEducation Services, School of Education, Oxford Brookes University, OX33 1HX. Price Pounds 5

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