So now do you understand?

6th September 1996 at 01:00
Esther Read introduces a new regular column.

It was as a child in Lanarkshire that I became familiar with the four-word introduction to any good story - no, not "Once upon a time" but "Tae let ye' un'erstaun". While the former is studiously vague, "Tae let ye' un'erstaun" promises contextual riches, not just the what, when and where of the tale but that thing of overwhelming importance, the why.

It's a model of communication HM Inspectorate appears to have enthusiastically embraced. So it was with some disappointment that I turned up at a meeting to discuss their recently published report on our local school and found myself joined by just three other parents - from a school roll of well over 500. Even the less than successful social evening organised by the school board had produced a better turnout.

The scapegoat for poor attendance then had been "inadequate publicity" but you couldn't pin that on the Inspectorate. Some of us had had questionnaires, soliciting our views. All of us had received a copy of the clearly laid out, informative final report. Maybe it was just that people felt there was nothing left to say?

Had they been there to hear the headteacher guide us through the inspectors' comments, good and bad (and most of them were deservedly positive) I hope they'd have dismissed that idea. Once we'd raced through the section entitled "How well are pupils performing?" the headmaster went on to discuss the intricacies of school development planning, the use of performance indicators to evaluate the school's work and the education authority's scheme of staff development and review. No matter how imperfectly these things might be working, it excited me, as a parent, to know that accountability was at last on the agenda.

I checked back in the Inspectors' Report. Yes, these things had all received a mention, under the heading, "How well is the school managed", but without a preceding "Tae let ye' un'erstaun" - an explanation of what they were, why they'd been devised, and how they should work in theory (the sort of explanation the headmaster was currently giving). Only now was I beginning to grasp the potential implications of such measures in ensuring, for example, that bad teachers were rooted out and that the curriculum remained consistent no matter how many supply teachers arrived on the scene.

Then I had another less positive thought. Hang on a minute, all this kind of stuff took time. How could teachers possibly fulfil all of these undeniably desirable quality assurance criteria and teach my child without something having to give? I could see that the process would, of itself, be helpful but it surely couldn't be the result of some kind of osmosis. Impulsively I thought of instigating a campaign to demand more free time for teachers to devote to such quality-driven activities - optimist and idealist that I am. But would such "interference" in the management of schools be a legitimate role for parents?

Coincidentally, in the time it had taken me to ruminate on all of this, we had reached yet another of the inspectors' recommendations - "That the school should continue to extend its use of national tests to cover all stages. " "Tae let ye' un'erstaun", we'd once had a spectacularly successful open meeting at our school on the subject of national tests, with the advantages and disadvantages fully aired.

9After a lively discussion at least 99 per cent of those present had voiced a distaste for the whole procedure, a view which had been communicated to the Secretary of State for Education via the school board.

So was this the answer to my question? Parents' views solicited - but only welcomed where they supported the party line or wouldn't cost the earth to implement? But maybe it's the teaching unions who should be getting their act together, helping parents understand the implications of quality assurance procedures on their members' time? Or is it that being subject to closer scrutiny isn't viewed as such good news by all? Aye, there's the rub. Letting people understand sometimes means they use the knowledge gained to draw their own very different conclusions.

Esther Read is a parent in Angus.

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