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Nutty ingredients under the icing

There seem to be three vital ingredients to a prize-winning annual report: a governing body has to want to involve and communicate with parents; it has to have something real to communicate and involve them with; and it then has to put it across in a clear, direct and attractive manner. However, no amount of glitzy presentation can make up for the lack of the first two, writes Bob Doe.

"We wanted to give the picture of a school working together as a team, and part of that team are the parents themselves," says Stanley Drapkin, chair of governors at Steeple Bumpstead primary school, in Suffolk which took the first prize for primary schools. "It is vital we get together to share our concerns and aims. Our school is a partnership of governing body, staff and parents. "

Steeple Bumpstead governors have now gone beyond the annual report and issue a termly newsletter to staff and parents on the workings of this partnership.

Involving parents is also a top priority at Islington's Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in north London, winner of the first prize for secondary schools. According to item one of the development plan: "We aim to involve more parents in the daily life of the school." And the governors have shown they mean it. Before replacing the previous long-serving head they wrote to every parent asking them what they should look for in a replacement; what needed to be preserved in the school and what could change for the better. They received between 50 and 60 replies by letter or telephone.

The school also has a parent-governors' committee, where concerns can be aired and fed back to the head. "Parental input is vital," says parent-governor and chair of governors Toni Parker. "They are our customers. We always make a special effort with our report; we bend over backwards to make it as parent-friendly as possible."

But it's no good wanting to involve parents if the governors have nothing to involve them with. "It has to be there to be written about," is how Alison Fiala, head of Steeple Bumpstead, put it.

Pride of place in their report goes to the success of the joint campaign begun by parents at their annual meeting back in 1991 for improvements in early-years education. This has now resulted in earlier admissions and plans for a nursery class.

"This is all good news achieved by working in partnership - staff, parents and governors. We now have one more hill to climb - large classes," Stanley Drapkin writes in an attempt, as he put it, to "get at" parents. "Please come to the meeting, share our concern and discuss our proposals for teacher support in these classes. The annual meeting is where your presence and your vote counts, not at the school gate."

Last year's meeting also carried unanimous resolutions against county proposals to allocate special-needs funding to schools according to free school meals uptake and national curriculum results, and opposing Government plans to reduce the qualifications for teaching infants.

Under the heading "Your governors working with you", Elizabeth Garrett Anderson's lead governors for finance, parents, personnel and special needs report on the issues arising in these areas. Other sections cover the governors, school achievement and community activities under such headlines as: "Your Guide to the Curriculum", "Wide choice at GCSE", "School Development plan takes off".

"We wanted to give a feel of the school and what the governors were doing, " says governor Marion Downey, who edited all the contributions of governors and staff with Jenny Des Fountain, deputy head, and Mat Crompton, the media resources officer. "You do need to try to draw people into the document. You can be too concerned about meeting all the legal obligations and not think enough about how you are going to make people read it."

She had only been a governor for a few months when she was asked to take on the report but she felt that helped: a fresh eye weeding out unexplained initials and asking "what does that mean?" when it was not clear to a parent. She drew on the guidelines from previous TES award reports. "The writing should be lively and personal without jargon and we used the good artwork we had in school even on pages that were just lists. We were amazed that you could win this award with just a simple report that we'd photocopied in school. You don't have to spend lots of money on it."

Having already won a TES award for its 1993 report, and taken on board the comments of the judges, the Steeple Bumpstead governors asked the parents at last year's annual meeting what they wanted to know, what could be left out and what needed to be better presented. Pupils are not forgotten as part of the Steeple Bumpstead team; each governor is responsible for a class and each class has interviewed their governor to produce a profile and portrait for the report.

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