28th May 2004 at 01:00
I hope you will accept this from a parent. It's about the first instalment of a new 5 to 11 school with only three year groups in place. I don't think we'd have any worries if it were in an established London suburb or similar setting. Parents there would be watchful or even demanding - I've left that behind it seems - but this is a newly-developed area where everything is incomplete and there are lots of new people who haven't yet bonded. We have governors but they are inexperienced and don't make their presence felt. We find a lot to praise, but also inadequacies in policies, staff experience and, above all, communication. You've written about a similar place with problems of security, builders still on site, water being cut off and of course mud, but our concerns go deeper. The head is experienced but last worked in a poor neighbourhood where parents accepted everything. The class teachers are all just out of college and don't understand our need to be better informed about what they are doing and why. Out-of-school activities are poor, with very little for boys in particular. Several parents are concerned. Governors should be reflecting this but don't have much of a role. How can this be improved?

I do indeed know the situation. The problems of starting a school bottom-up don't seem to have been explored enough. Communication is vital. I've found newly-qualified primary teachers second-to-none in some respects, but as they're not yet parents, they're occasionally not so hot on communication.

Inevitably when the school is growing on its feet, teachers will be too few in number to offer a full range of out-of-classroom skills. You have some concerned parents - half the battle. Your local education authority should be very active on these problems just now - have you a local councillor on the education committee you could talk to? Their understanding of the situation is vital. They have primary specialists in their own inspectorate who will know all about curriculum enrichment, communication with parents and the other problems you raise. Your governor training team could also be helpful. Why don't you stand as a parent governor when there's a vacancy? Just one person with the confidence to speak up makes a huge difference. Or talk to others about starting a PTA to grow with the school. Failing that, suggest to parents you meet that you make a request to meet your governors from time to time, because no matter what teachers think, that is essential. No need to be shrill, just accepting that it's a difficult situation for a bit and needs talking about. An annual report to parents and an annual meeting to discuss the running of the school are still legal requirements. No harm in asking whether this is in preparation. Once parents get interested you may find that there are a few who can give a bit of time to enriching activities - football coaching, cooking, clubs. These also provide informal opportunities for suggestions of things parents would like to hear about. Don't let this problem grow. This is just the right time for establishing good habits with parents, and someone who has identified the need so well must not let the opportunity slip. It will be a better school as a result.

A compilation of Joan Sallis's columns has been published in Questions School Governors Ask. Copies are available at pound;7.95 from The TES bookshop: call 0870 4448633 or see Questions for 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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