Nobody's listening

10th March 2000 at 00:00
MINISTERS and HM Inspectors are wasting their time pumping out screeds of information for parents on everything from exam results to school costs, according to unpublished research commissioned by the Scottish Executive.

The uncomfortable message that challenges more than a decade of practice, spanning Conservative and Labour administrations, is that parents view glossy Government publications as meaningless, irrelevant, boring and mostly for school managers.

The majority of parents who want a focus on their own child in their own school. If they want information, they want it verbally from teachers, other parents and children, and are unlikely to be influenced by any Government document if they are making a decision.

Sacred policies such as choice of school are less significant. The research, drawn from 12 focus groups across the country, shows parents are aware of their rights but for the majority there is no real choice. Decisions about sending children to a particular school are not based on its reputation and standing in league tables but more on location and convenience.

Schools' reputations are well-known locally and information comes largely from talking to friends, neighbours and relatives. Few parents look for publications.

Parents told researchers schools should not be judged on results alone. Other factors such as the behaviour and happiness of children, quality of children's books, stability of teachers and perception of a child's teacher are more important. "The performance of the school is rarely a priority. The focus is on the child," researchers report.

Statistical information also receives a hammering. Most parents are unaware of major reports, although most say they already know about exam results. There is a distrust of any statistics.

What they want is feedback on their child's progress, practical advice on helping at home, policies on bullying and discipline, the transition to secondary and what to do if a child is having problems.

Ann Hill, chief executive of the Scottish School Board Association, said: "The research does not surprise me. The type of douments coming into schools are very little use to parents and more use for school boards and staff. They need to turn these into relevant leaflets for parents."

Mrs Hill continued: "Every parent wants to know how their child is performing against the wean next door and how they are doing against the school down the road. Parents want to know how to help their children."

Judith Gillespie, development manager at the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, commented: "This confirms the message that we have been trying for so often for so long with such frequency to get across to the Government and I hope they will take notice. Parents' focus is on their child and the first point of contact is the children's teacher. If you want to engage parents in the school, you have got to start from that point and build from the bottom up."

Mrs Gillespie said the education Bill was "utterly irrevelant" to most parents, even though a major thrust is to involve them more in decision-making. The Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Bill emphasises the role of school boards and ensures all parents will be consulted on school development plans and improvement objectives. Local authorities will have to account annually on progress in involving parents.

Not to be outdone, the Executive has initiated a national planning forum, involving the SSBA, SPTC, the Scottish Consumer Council and local authorities, to campaign for greater parental involvement. The group will report to ministers on new ideas to develop partnerships.

The Scottish Executive Education Department is believed to have ordered a root-and-branch review of the way information is reported on the performance of schools and education authorities.

The shape of things to come is expected around December. Parent focus groups give a blunt message that ministerial gloss is meaningless, irrelevant and boring UNMOVED ON THE HOME FRONT

Parents say standards and quality reports are:

* Not well publicised.

* Of little interest - not for us.

* Vague, boring, irrelevant and worthless.

* Meaningless, didn't hold

their attention.

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