What parents want

24th February 1995 at 00:00
Whatever else parents may think about the Government's education reforms, the vast majority appear to be in favour of national testing. If anything, their support has grown since it was mooted in 1987. Now over 80 per cent are apparently in favour of tests for 11 and 14 year olds. There is even a majority (53 per cent) for the more controversial tests at seven according to extensive interviews with 659 parents in 50 different education authorities just completed by Oxford Brookes University (page 8).

At first glance, this finding sits oddly with the strong support apparently shown by some parents for the boycott of tests. It is possible, of course, that this was the work of the small minority of parents who still declare themselves strongly opposed to testing. But it is more probable that once again this survey underlines a wider ambiguity parents have about their children's schooling; an ambiguity which has important implications both for schools and Government as they vie for hearts and minds over cuts.

Put baldly, it is this: ask parents if education is going to the dogs and they agree it is; have they not heard so on TV and read about dire standards in their newspapers? Ask them if they are satisfied with their own child's school, on the other hand, and the overwhelming majority - more than 90 per cent - say they are. Viewed from an overall perspective, the two positions are obviously contradictory. Yet to individual parents, most of whom apparently regard their children's teachers as something out of the ordinary, the logic is perfectly sustainable.

The implications of this for schools are both encouraging and salutary. Encouraging because despite the relentless barrage of criticism of their achievements, methods and intentions, teachers have somehow retained the understanding and support of their parents, who are far more at home criticising distant bureaucrats and politicians for inadequate funding. Salutary because, whether such entrenched goodwill is due to the public relations efforts of headteachers, the impotence of their critics or simply parental wish fulfilment, if schools want to retain this solidarity they will need to work even harder to foster it. The alternative is the consumer-producer relationship being promoted in the new education market place. If the partnership approach is to continue, parents will increasingly expect to be treated as real partners.

It may be significant that parents in grant-maintained schools were found to be more critical of schools' efforts to keep them informed. Is this an indication that GM schools are more aloof and remote from parents or that expectations of parents choosing such schools are somehow different? Either way, the second clear message of the Oxford Brookes survey for these and other schools is that, while parents generally find teachers open and accessible, they still want greater involvement in the education of their children. One parent in three wanted to be more involved; helping in class or with extra curricular activities, sharing a special skill or having more opportunities to consult teachers were what they had in mind, not joining the parent teacher association or becoming governors.

Though generally happy with reports and parent consultation meetings as far as these go, many also want more and better progress reports. It is almost certainly this that fuels their support for testing, even though many backed their teachers over the ineptness of the first attempts. The widespread ignorance of the national curriculum revealed in this survey also suggests schools have a great deal yet to do to educate parents about the meaning of test results when they do arrive.

The Oxford Brookes interviews also indicate that, despite their goodwill towards local schools, parents are beginning to use the information provided for them as consumers in seeking a better buy, particularly when choosing a new school.Their response to the league tables illustrates this.

Two-fifths of the parents questioned had never laid eyes on them, mostly because they somehow passed them by or were not thought to be helpful or interesting. But then only a minority of parents would have had children transferring to secondary schools in the three years in which the performance tables have so far been published.

Of the parents who did see them and who already had children in secondary schools, a majority (70 per cent) said the tables had not influenced their view of their school;a quarter said the league tables made them more positive about the school; 6 per cent felt less positive about it but only 2 per cent seriously enough to consider changing schools.

However, 46 per cent of parents with children in primary schools who saw the tables said their choice of secondary school had been influenced. When the parents who had not been able to see the results or had no wish to do so are included, this proportion reduces to 27 per cent. But since many parents have little real choice of secondary school, the fact that more than a quarter say theirs was affected by the league tables suggests publication may be having rather more impact than has been detected to date, particularly among the high-aspiring, supportive parents schools can hardly afford to neglect.

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