13th February 2004 at 00:00
Joan Sallis answers governors' questions'

I am a new parent governor of a church school in a big industrial town. I mention that because the population includes all classes and I know many parents who can't cope with written communication and who are scared of any critical contact with the school. I am very worried about a questionnaire sent out to parents which seems to invite only praise. All the questions are yes or no, and they ask you to say whether your child is happy at school, has made friends, likes their teacher, enjoys the dinners, and so on - no suggestion there might be any problems. Yet I know many who would love to be able to say that their child is being bullied, that the toilets are disgusting, that their children can't get a drink of water at break time. What's the use of asking questions if they don't bring out the real worries?

I agree entirely. I suppose it is something that the school wants feedback, and you must give it credit for that, however unlikely the questionnaire is to produce meaningful answers. Questionnaires have to be very skilfully constructed to produce any valuable information and too many make it very hard for parents to say anything critical.

At least you are a governor, and I'm afraid you have to be brave enough to inject the idea that governors and perhaps the parent-teacher association, if you have one (and if not a random group of parents) should have some say in what questions are asked. That is the only way to get at the real preoccupations. I have seen very good questionnaires in which the questions give parents a real share in the thinking, and the answers give the school a framework for improvement. Remember the governors' job is to improve schools, and opinion surveys play a part. You have a very good idea what sort of questions would produce honest and useful answers and you must assume that the school does want such answers and will therefore be willing to listen to suggestions. You may not be convinced that the school wants such answers, but the most effective technique is still to assume the best of intentions.

Quite apart from questionnaires, however, I would feel concerned if a governing body had not felt able to initiate discussion on the sort of issues you say concern parents, even without waiting for evidence. If you know there is concern on any serious matter among parents, would you not feel able to ask for an agenda item? I do feel that after all these years of governing body reform there is still a gap here, and that governors do not feel they have the means to open subjects up. I wish that when the Government put through their recent changes in procedure, they had given any three governors the right to place an item on the agenda, bearing in mind that any three can already call a special meeting. I see no reason, in fact, why a governing body should not establish an understanding to that effect off its own bat.

The TES welcomes your queries. Joan Sallis does her best to answer all letters, but please keep requests for private replies to a minimum, since we aim to provide helpful information for ALL readers and always protect the identity of schools and individuals. Questions to Joan Sallis should be sent to The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX, fax 020 7782 3202, or see where answers to submitted questions will appear

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