The thickest is not always the best

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Another school year, another school - this family's seventh in four years. We never intended to drag the children around like this, but life doesn't always work out as planned, and it hasn't been all bad. The children are nothing, now, if not adaptable - and so well-versed in the differences between schools that if the Office for Standards in Education was ever to open a junior branch they could be its first recruits.

They've not only been to a lot of schools, but also to a huge variety - maintained and private, boarding and day, conservative and liberal, home and abroad, primary, middle and upper.

Which means that we parents, in turn, have become experts in the motley field of home-school communications. We've kept folders of the information sent to us by each of these schools and the difference between them jumps out at you as soon as you open the filing cabinet.

The thickest of all holds information on uniform, syllabuses, options, results, music lessons, pick-up times, after-school activities, honours, detentions, pupil destinations, parent-teacher associations, sports events, the works. The thinnest contains little more than instructions on how to pay school fees.

I wouldn't say that the thickest is necessarily the best, but given the choice between too much information, or too little, I'm sure most new parents would plump for the former, if only because there's nothing more unsettling than trying to reassure an anxious child about an unknown future.

Most of the schools we've had dealings with have managed to cover the essential bases - admissions, curriculum, ethos, discipline and dress code - but according to the Consumers' Association this isn't always the case. In a recent survey, it found that an astonishing 79 out of 80 still fail to give parents the information they are required to supply by law, with some failing even to provide the most fundamental facts - exam results, national test results and absence rates.

Philip Cullum, the association's manager, said the lack of progress over the past three years was "disappointing", with the very worst schools virtually implying "that parents were an unavoidable inconvenience rather than encouraging them to be more involved with their children's education".

But it's exactly this sort of thing - the tone behind the content - that so many schools get, if not as wrong as that, then at least a bit awry.

Some are off-puttingly bossy ("parents will . . .", "pupils must . . . ", "sports equipment shall . . ."), some patronising ("starting a new school can be a little bit scary for everyone") and some hopelessly cliched. All schools, these days, are "caring communities", "committed to partnership" and "dedicated to encouraging every pupil to fulfil his or her potential". Rehearsing such platitudes is as much a waste of space as the banner I once saw draped across the entrance to a city primary school: "WE APPLAUD OURSELVES."

Some schools veer towards the threatening, with heavy-handed warnings about the consequences of misdeeds. Others clearly care more about their own good name than the best interest of their pupils, laying down uniform rules that put conformity before comfort, and behaviour codes that elevate compliance above common sense and self-discipline.

The Consumers' Association identifies educational jargon, legalistic language and illegible typeface as typical problems. I'd add others. Some schools send you copies of old school magazines so dreary in lay-out and turgid in content you wonder how they could ever think these would enhance their reputation. Others are big on artistic brochures featuring well-scrubbed children bending over test-tubes, but neglect to tell you the really important things like the name of your child's new teacher.

The very best school literature puts the pupils at the heart of everything it covers, and allows the spirit of a school to shine through. (There's no faking this; if the spirit isn't right, the literature can't be either.) It is written clearly and confidently, and tells you what you need to know, without swamping you with unnecessary detail. It balances rights against regulations, and explains the reasoning behind school rules.

It contains very specific information - names, maps, times - and doesn't flinch from outlining any problems parents need to know about - petty theft, say, or inadequate locker space. It tells you about current organisation and procedures, but also makes clear that the school is alive and self-questioning - a responsive and evolving institution.

It might be simple to read, but will have been put together with the most enormous care, not only because it's always the simplest things that are the hardest to produce, but also because it will be the product of a school smart enough to realise that first impressions are everything, and that this is its one big chance to stamp the blank family page with its ethos and expectations, and make clear what it wants from parents in return.

In fact the most-thumbed piece of school literature ever to come into our house was entirely the work of parent volunteers - the annual handbook of our children's American primary school.

This ring-bound manual not only listed all the usual school information in one handy volume, but also contained the names, addresses and phone numbers of every family in the school.

People reached for it the minute they needed to drum up volunteers, organise committees, tout for contributions to school events, or arrange the social business of playdates, birthday parties and shared rides, and if anyone ever lost their copy, they did not rest until they'd borrowed someone else's and made a photostat.

I'm told that schools here could never produce such a thing because parents would fear the information would fall into the wrong hands, but such handbooks are commonplace in the United States, where they seem to exist without problems, serve to knit schools into close communities and generate levels of parental support that we in this country can scarcely begin to imagine.

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