I'm glad you asked me that...

31st October 1997 at 00:00
The theory behind our annual survey of parents is a simple one. There are three primary schools in our immediate neighbourhood and not enough pupils to go round, so we have to compete for pupils. Parents are our customers, and the survey enables us to find out what they want and to give it to them. Less cynically, we believe that a successful, happy school depends on staff, governors and parents working in partnership.

The fundamental flaw in the system is the assumption that parental opinion will be consistent. This is not the case, as was dramatically demonstrated at our annual parents' meeting. At least parents come now. Four or five years ago, we were lucky to get half a dozen attending, and those that did bother to turn up just sat quietly while I talked them through the report, trying in vain to stir up a little controversy. Now we flag up the issues for debate as those which scored lowest in the survey and invite further comment.

This year, for the first time, the meeting was actually quorate, though I refrained from drawing parents' attention to this fact. The atmosphere was sufficiently heated already. There would in any event have been no danger of the meeting passing any resolutions, as opinion was sharply divided on every matter under discussion. I did not so much chair the meeting as referee it.

Take homework, for instance. Some parents maintained strongly that it should be set regularly and demanded promptly, and pupils who failed to comply should be given "lines". It is sometimes hard to believe that these parents were themselves educated in the child-centred classrooms of the Sixties and Seventies. In contrast, other parents thought it unnecessary for primary children to do homework at all; they should be "slobbing out in front of the telly like we do" or out playing with their friends. Both groups agreed that the grown-up world was a harsh, unforgiving, competitive place; they disagreed over whether it was better for children to get used to this early or be protected from it as long as possible.

We see homework as a way of allowing parents to understand what their children are doing at school and become involved in their education. Parents, whether they approve of it or not, seem to regard it as a punishment - not a healthy attitude for children to take with them to secondary school. We have a communications problem.

The question of compulsory uniform produced equally impassioned debate. Many parents believe that having a uniform avoids competition over clothes, and daily rows over what to wear. They also seem to think that discipline, loyalty to the school and educational achievement are all improved by standardising sweatshirts.

Just as vehement are those who assert their children's right to express their personality through their choice of clothes. Several families threatened to withdraw their children and leave the area if we denied their children the right to dress as Spice Girls or footballers. With both the staff and the local authority opposed to strict enforcement of uniform, our ability to change our policy of recommended school dress is very limited. "So why did you ask the question if you couldn't deliver?" asked a parent. He was absolutely right of course, so I did the only thing possible: accepted responsiblity and grovelled for my error of judgment. It never fails.

The danger of the survey and the subsequent meeting is that the governors can find themselves bounced into a particular course of action by a vociferous minority. With such polarised opinions being expressed we can only compromise, steer a middle course - and be denounced as ineffective by all sides!

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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