Questionnaires can improve school-home relations and boost staff morale, as Seonag MacKinnon discovered.
The very idea makes many headteachers blanch. Distributing a questionnaire to parents asking for their views on the school seems like making oneself a hostage to fortune. Since human beings and perhaps Scots in particular tend to express themselves most forcefully about things that are imperfect, brickbats must surely pour in from the pedants and whingers.
Not so, say many who have braced themselves to draw up a questionnaire and post it in the school bags. Busy parents who would not spontaneously put pen to paper to say that all is well at the school, perhaps even wonderful, are happy to tick boxes which convey the same message.
Questionnaires are less a whinger's charter, more a statement from the silent majority. In an age when teachers come in for seemingly relentless sniping in the national media, the feedback from parent questionnaires can be like a breath of fresh air.
Fay Black, head of Achaleven Primary in Connel, Argyll, says: "Since you ask them what they think of you, you have to be prepared for what comes. But the results were overwhelmingly positive and many said they were glad to have the opportunity to say how they felt."
Ted Brack, head of St John's Primary in Portobello, Edinburgh, describes the responses to his parents' questionnaire as "a morale booster" for himself and colleagues. "If you are working hard and doing a good job, it is nice to see it is recognised. Staff found it a valuable exercise, because it was so positive."
Both heads stress that although the parents attached to their oversubscribed schools happen to be overwhelmingly supportive and articulate, they would issue questionnaires whatever the area.
Miss Black, who taught in Glasgow's Easterhouse scheme earlier in her career, says: "If you are in the habit of regular evaluation, you know what the parents think about the school, you get useful suggestions and it helps get the parents behind the school."
Achaleven's most recent questionnaire resulted in a surprise for staff returning to school after Easter. Parents had followed up their suggestion in the questionnaire of brightening up the playground by filling tubs with flowers and painting lines for games including hopscotch and chess. Giant chess pieces were put on the playground board. Now during their coffee break staff can see older children teaching younger ones how to play.
Headteachers stress that a questionnaire is nothing unless a school is seen to act upon the results. Parents will not be drawn into a closer relationship with the school if nothing is done. The mutter among mothers at the school gate will be that the document was either a bureaucratic or a PR exercise.
One headteacher convened a meeting to discuss a parents' claim in a questionnaire that sports provision was poor - even though he disagreed. He feels it was a worthwhile exercise, just to be seen by the school community to be taking the complaint seriously. As it happened, most parents agreed with the head and the isolated protest fizzled out.
Many parents' suggestions are of value. They may point out the need for a safety barrier at the school gate or a better way of organising transfer of children on to school buses. Parental opinion assessed and collated on the pace and scale of work in school, can also be a useful tool for members of a management team trying to motivate more relaxed teachers to go up a gear. And distribution of the questionnaire is hard evidence to parents and other interested parties that the management team is not complacent.
One head says: "I feel sorry for schools who have never asked parents what their feelings are before the inspector comes in and does just that. You should never allow yourself to be caught out."
Most schools base their questionnaire on the 20-point one used by inspectors, which covers all aspects of school life. Some employ a consultant to draft the document and analyse responses.
* A typical questionnaire statement would be: "I think the curriculum is appropriate to our school." or "I find the headteacher and the staff approachable and respond to our concerns." Tick a box to indicate whether you strongly agree, agree, don't know, disagree, strongly disagree.
* Make the responses to the parental questionnaire anonymous to encourage an honest response.
* Hold meetings to give the interviewees feedback and to discuss issues raised.
* Take action over legitimate concerns.
* Issue the question-naire at the end of the session. At this time all parents are familiar with the school and you are likely to have more time to collate the answers.
* Canvas the opinions of staff and pupils too.