More 'choice'cuts no ice with parents

24th October 1997 at 01:00
Before the national curriculum, teachers were more approachable and happy to chat . . . or so people thought. Nadene Ghouri reports.

Parents in two very different parts of the country are cynical about the reforms which were intended to give them power over their children's education, according to new research.

Performance league tables are the target of particular criticism, described by some parents as "divisive" and "grossly misleading".

"In the name of giving parents far more power and making teachers more accountable to them, the irony is that those parents are actually left feeling more disenfranchised", claims Professor Cedric Cullingford of Huddersfield University.

In his study What parents really really want, Professor Cullingford interviewed more than 100 parents with children at both primary and secondary school. He asked for their views on 1990s education, ranging from the national curriculum to league tables.

"The results were a real surprise," he says. "Instead of being seduced by new reforms and powers given to them, the parents were angry and cynical. The consistency and vehemence of their answers was incredible."

Professor Cullingford believes parents hark back to the days before the national curriculum, when they felt teachers were more inspired, were under less pressure and had more time to chat informally.

"There are some exceptions, like the types who become governors, but the vast majority don't want that level of control. They want to be partners in their child's education not moral policemen," he said.

One father said his child's school was run like an "autonomous business" and "frightened the life" out of him. Another said that he felt "in awe" of the school because of "all the hierarchy."

Several of the parents were critical of the national curriculum, claiming they were now too scared to approach teachers who were obviously under "tremendous pressure" and "great stress".

According to Professor Cullingford: "They really felt that as teachers are so overwhelmed nowadays, they wouldn't be comfortable approaching them with what might be regarded as little queries or trivial worries. The upshot is that although they clearly felt sorry for busy teachers, they were angry that friendly, informal communication had gone."

One mother thought pupil reports put a "great burden" on her daughter's primary teacher, especially as all she had wanted was "constructive criticism", but instead got "largely meaningless detail on aspects of the curriculum". Another thought key stage testing was of no value to either teachers or children.

The most scathing comments were about league tables, with various parents describing them as "ridiculous" and "gimmicky".

Professor Cullingford believes that regarding parents as "clients" or the "market voice" is the "wrong dogma".

Martin Hughes of Exeter University has made similar discoveries in two studies of nearly 400 parents with children in infant classes. He found that parents didn't understand assessment, didn't know about new reforms and were overloaded with what they saw as largely irrelevant information.

He says: "Most of them were reluctant to call themselves consumers and thought the issue of choice didn't really exist. I got the very strong impression that they viewed schools like some people view the NHS. They were happy with their local schools, but were deeply dissatisfied with the national situation. "

Both professors would like to see parents fully consulted over future reforms. Professor Hughes said: "The Parent's Charter was drawn up without parents ever being asked what it was they wanted. What governments think parents want and what parents actually do want are often very different things altogether. To use the previous government's business and consumer language - in the rush to emphasise the choice of the initial purchase, they forgot to sort out the after-sales service."

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