Things can only get better?

2nd May 1997 at 01:00
Last year, my school conducted a survey of parental opinion. Staff expressed much trepidation. They were concerned that the anonymity offered would allow parents to unleash a barrage of abuse. They also feared the governors would be forced to frame policies according to parental preferences rather than the professional judgment of teachers. Fortunately they were underestimating the loyalty of the parents and the good sense of the governors.

Part of the package was a commitment to repeat the survey annually. The second time around was far more frightening than the first. Last year we had no idea about the likely level of response, or of what would constitute success.

We asked parents to score from 1 (strong disagreement) to 5 (strong agreement) on a series of positive statements about the school. An average acceptability threshold of 3.5 was arrived at retrospectively on the basis that two-thirds of questions scored higher than that and only one-third below. This provided us with a limited manageable number of areas identified as in need of improvement. We explored these issues with parents at the annual meeting, drew up a plan of action with the staff and made every effort to respond positively.

This year was different. Success or failure could be assessed on one criterion - have we improved on last year? For the satisfaction of the parents, the morale of the staff and the credibility of the governors, the answer had to be yes.

My first anxiety was on the level of response. Having tried to establish ourselves as a listening school, responding to parents' concerns and making genuine efforts to meet them, we hoped for more than last year's 50 per cent. On the other hand, the inertia factor - "I filled in one of these last year so they know what I think" - was bound to work against us.

Perhaps the two cancelled out. We did get a slight increase in the number of surveys completed, but we received fewer written comments. Or perhaps the other 50 per cent of parents took a turn.

Keeping the same questions was important for comparability, but we added a section on last year's low-scoring questions - had parents seen an improvement?

Fortunately they had, and the same questions repeated in the main survey showed a corresponding upward trend. Only three of the original 18 questions scored less than the magic 3.5 this year - as I hoped. It was good enough to allow ourselves a pat on the back in the annual report, not so good as to induce complacency.

I'm worried about next year now. I am beginning to realise - should I share this knowledge with the new Education Secretary? - that continuous improvement is not a realistic objective. There is bound to be a levelling off at some stage, or even significant differences as new children and their parents move through the school.

At the request of a parent this year, we added a question about making school uniform compulsory. It drew more comments than any other.

May I suggest this as a diversionary tactic to any governors faced with a poor OFSTED report or league table results? Nothing distracts parents' attention more effectively from educational issues. Perhaps I should have kept it in reserve for when the survey results start to slip.

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