David Blunkett has his work cut out. Although mothers and fathers are largely happy with schools, only a fifth think they have improved under his stewardship. Jeremy Sutcliffe opens a report on the TES millennium poll with a look at standards and discipline
FIRST the good news: the overwhelming majority of parents (93 per cent) send their children to the school of their choice and most are happy with the education they receive there.
The millennium poll conducted by leading research agency FDS International for The TES reveals that only one in 20 parents rates their own child's school experience as poor, while even fewer (4 per cent) complain about poor teaching.
Despite the gloom merchants, who predicted that more choice and diversity would generate disappointment and frustration, the message is clear: parental choice is working, and working well.
Curiously, this level of satisfaction with their own child's education does not extend to their general perception of standards of education in Britain's schools.
Ten per cent of parents believe standards in the nation's schools as a whole are poor, while a similar proportion give teaching standards a poor rating.
Parents may be more pessimistic about standards generally but, on balance, they think that the quality of education is improving.
Inevitably, both Labour and the Tories will try to claim credit for this positive stance. Almost half of parents questioned believe that educational standards have risen in the past 10 years while a quarter think they have declined. Since Labour came to power in 1997, one in five believe standards have risen, while one in 10 thinks they have fallen.
Interestingly, parents from more privileged social groups - traditional Tory supporters - are more positive about changes in the past decade than in the past two years. In contrast, those from less well-off social groups - traditional Labour supporters - are more positive about changes since the election.
This may have much to do with tribal loyalties, but the Government is likely to conclude that optimism about school standards is rising fastest in porer neighbourhoods. Teachers in these areas will also hope that a "feel-good" factor is at last on the way, having borne the brunt of recent attacks over standards.
While much of the news is positive, however, the overall figures conceal important differences.
For example, a parent who sends his or her child to an independent or grammar school is almost twice as likely to rate it excellent or very good than a parent whose child attends a comprehensive or secondary modern.
There are important regional differences too. Three in every four parents in the South-west rate teaching in their child's school as excellent or good, compared with just over half (54 per cent) of parents in London.
There is greatest dissatisfaction with teaching in London, with 10 per cent of parents rating teaching in their children's own school as poor, compared with just 4 per cent in the country as a whole.
One of parents' biggest worries is discipline. Two in every three parents believe that discipline has declined in the past 10 years, while only one in 10 thinks it has improved. This is especially true of parents of secondary pupils and working-class parents, who are more likely to send their children to schools in areas where discipline can be a problem. Perhaps as a result, these parents are more likely to support a return to corporal punishment in schools. Six in 10 are in favour compared with four in ten middle-class parents. Overall, a slight majority (51 per cent) favour a return of the cane.
Indiscipline and bad behaviour also ranks as one of parents' main concerns for the future, with one in four identifying it as the biggest problem facing schools. Only lack of resources rated higher (see story, right).
And it seems parents will take some convincing that the Government, is taking the right steps to tackle bad behaviour in schools.
The Government's new programme to cut truancy and exclusion rates and to fund a network of in-school pupil-referral units has already had a mixed response from teacher unions; parents may find the prospect of more unruly pupils in schools even less palatable.