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Secondary answers to four primary issues

Drugs, bullying, homework, and uniform: for parents whose children are moving on to secondary schools next autumn these are the key issues.

This term I've spent more than a few evenings perched on primary-sized chairs at meetings - mostly held in village primary schools - to talk about the transition to secondary.

The prospective parents are also interested in exam results, pastoral arrangements, mixed-ability grouping, learning support, extra-curricular activities, what children can have for lunch, the system for rewards and how we organise detentions. But the top four are mentioned every time.

The evening starts with our home-made video, then moves on to parents' questions. We provide them with a prompt sheetchecklist to ensure everyone gets the information they want. Sometimes there are as few as six parents and seldom more than 20, plus a scattering of children.

We want to ensure a smooth transition for our prospective pupils but also to convince the wavering who might be considering other schools.

The transition co-ordinator and I deal with most questions but parents love to hear from the two students we take along and our representative governor - particularly if he or she has a child at the school. The students tell it like it is and are also living examples of the kind of articulate, and enthusiastic young people we like to turn out.

In a scattered rural area like ours, these evenings are also a way of keeping in touch with what parents are thinking.

Many, of course, already have children at the school and will use the occasion to raise issues which are current as well as those for the future.

This also means we cannot lie (or even exaggerate). It's no good trying to sell an over-rosy picture to future parents when present ones are in the same small audience. On the other hand, satisfied parents can be very reassuring to those facing the move for the first time.

They sometimes wonder aloud what they will do when they can no longer just drop in to see the teacher.

We try to tell them they can; it's slightly more complicated but essentially we're here to meet their needs and that means easy contact with all our staff.

At the evening's end most thank us for our reassurance and promise to take up my offer of visiting the school - with or without their child. The next nine months should be comparatively stress-free and they will approach the transfer with more confidence.

For us there remains uncertainty. This is also a marketing exercise. We are targeting the "don't knows" - the 10 per cent who might be considering an alternative to the local comprehensive. For some this will mean a neighbouring local education authority school; for others, the independent sector. Until they make up their minds we won't know our numbers and in a school of our size even small fluctuations can be critical.

But in the end, if only two or three are influenced by this approach it's still worth the effort. In close-knit communities, the experiences and opinions of very few people can have a profound effect on that most fragile of creatures - a school's reputation. Meeting them, emphasising our strengths and acknowledging our weaknesses should give parents the confidence to challenge the school in a constructive way.

Much better that than the apocryphal word-of-mouth criticism which can lock some schools into a spiral of decline and give others a wholly undeserved aura of excellence.

And, unfortunately, we are able to give reassuring, although not complacent, responses to the four key questions.

Mike Fielding is principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, Devon.

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