We won't know unless we ask;The sweeney;School management

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Market research involving our customers is still an alien concept to our education system. In Holy Rood High School, we have occasionally asked parents what times they prefer for evening meetings or whether they like the school badge on the breast or the sleeve of the school sweatshirt. We are less inclined to ask parents to rate the headteacher or the classroom teaching on a 1-4 scale.

It was only when the school was inspected that a substantialsurvey of parents was undertaken. This demonstrated that our parent body generally appreciates our work and considers that our pupils are well looked after.

While the exercise covered a large proportion of parents and a wide range of issues from accessibility of management to fair treatment of pupils, it stopped short of addressing in detail quality of teaching or levels of attainment.

Within the professional cloisters of education, we can surround ourselves with complacency by selecting comfortable areas for self-evaluation and setting objectives that are well within our comfort zone. From national and local government there is a collective wisdom about what really matters to parents: 5-14, target setting, national testing, homework. We are encouraged to accept that these are the vital issues that cause Scottish parents on the cusp of the new millennium to reach for the Mogadon.

But, hold on. The Scottish Parent Teacher Council has taken the radical and innovative step of asking parents what they want. The results are very different from the consensus view as perceived from Educationville. None of the issues listed above emerged as burning concerns. Homework featured on the list compiled from surveys of both primary and secondary parents, but it did not remotely challenge anxieties about disruption and personal safety.

In primary schools, no fewer than 35 per cent of parents listed bullying as their top concern, with a further 28 per cent putting discipline in pole position. These figures can reasonably beaggregated to a total of 63 per cent of parents who share a serious concern about disruptive andviolent behaviour. This outcome will surprise many secondary headteachers, including this one. My experience of primary schools in the Holy Rood catchment area would lead me to a more optimistic view of behaviour in primary schools, but the national picture may be very different from the serenity of our cosy cluster.

Secondary schools can take scant comfort from the fact that Higher Still, at least an educational matter, topped the poll for secondary parents. This is presumably because the incomprehensible national debate, conducted through the media, transmitted waves of anxiety to parents about group awards, bi-level teaching and boycotts. Drugs and bullying came second and third respectively, highlighting that parents are chiefly concerned that their children will be able to learn in peace and return home in safety.

Primaries and secondaries both featured teaching standards as the top preoccupation for over 20 per cent of parents. This is a sizeable chunk of the population, which presents a thorny challenge to national and local government and to school managers. It would be enlightening to know in what respects parents regard teaching as deficient. It may be that their expectations are unrealistic or outdated, but any commercial enterprise would be short-lived if it failed to take account of such customer perception about its core activity.

Homework did not feature strongly in the league table of parental angst but is a concern of a substantial group of school users. School transport and uniform were mentioned more frequently. In Holy Rood we have sought to allay parents' concerns by issuing a guide to homework in all subjects for all year-groups, so that parents can see expectations at a glance, and can discern whether their offspring is shooting them a line. Letters home from individual departments about homework have also increased.

The practicalities of schooling are often more of a worry to parents than the minutiae of curricular content. School transport was found to exercise a substantial number of parents, and indeed buses feature prominently in the daily round of Holy Rood's senior management team.

I would welcome the opportunity to repeat the SPTC survey with Holy Rood parents to determine where their main fears and anxieties lie. The staff of Holy Rood are a sufficiently robust and professional body to withstand the challenge of any conclusions that may emerge. Teachers may take the view that a similar exercise, inviting them to list their major concerns, could be equally revealing. In the face of all this self-revelation, headteachers will only preserve their equanimity by opting for a mass induction to the art of yogic flying.

Pat Sweeney is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh.

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