Dalton's Diary

5th July 1996 at 01:00
My school's annual report for last year gained an honourable mention in the TES Awards.

I entered it anonymously and was delighted to have the hard work of an excellent team of governors recognised. I was less thrilled that the letter informing us of our success came to school addressed to the headteacher.

As a governor, the head does make a contribution to our report, as do many of the others. I edit hers ruthlessly to remove educational jargon, break all contributions into bite-size pieces with bold headlines and homogenise the whole into a house style.

Writing the annual report poses the same problems as writing short stories for women's magazines. The format is laid down, there are things which must be included and expectations to be met. The readers must be entertained and reassured. Happy endings are obligatory. The trick is to combine a comforting sense of familiarity with just enough of a new slant to hold the attention.

The temptation, now that everything is held on computer, is simply to update last year's report, altering a few dates here and there, changing the titles of school productions, adding or deleting members of staff. But this is cheating and morally wrong. Also, there is always something you miss which gives you away. We start fresh each time, desperately searching for a new twist on old materials.

I am pinning my hopes of success this year - measured by how many parents attend the annual meeting - on the survey of parents. The first three stages of this have been successfully completed. We devised a survey the staff and governors all approved, sent it to parents and got almost 50 per cent response, and computer-analysed the results.

As I expected, these were sufficiently positive to provide a real pat on the back for the staff, rather than the kick in the teeth they seemed to be expecting.

Against this background they are prepared to be very constructive about the few areas where there was some dissatisfaction. But part of the plan is to make no formal response until after the annual meeting. We are picking the problem areas as topics for discussion and hoping for suggestions.

For years I have heard staff and governors trot out the old chestnut, "The fact that nobody comes shows they are all satisfied. They would soon come if there was a problem." I have long suspected that the real reason is more along the lines of "What's the point, nobody is going to take any notice of what we say anyway."

I hope that by convincing parents that we are a listening school, we will get them to come and talk to us. The follow-up to the survey will be to devise and publish an Action Plan which will combine reassurance about the things we cannot or do not wish to change with definite measurable initiatives for improvement.

It is important that we establish criteria for measuring the effectiveness of what we do as governors. If the success of the first stages of the survey can be measured by how many parents come to the meeting, the final test will be how many are prepared to fill in another survey next year.

There was a final section in the survey which asked what single change would most improve the children's education. The most frequent suggestion was smaller class sizes.

It is beginning to look as if, with growing numbers, a little belt tightening and creative accounting we can afford another teacher next year - a wonderful surprise ending for the annual report.

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands.

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