Why we had to read between the lines
But how could we be sure partnership was a reality or just fine words? The schools that were most positive about such partnerships demonstrated it by explaining how they involved parents, how they communicated with them and how they could contribute to their child's education and school life. One school even produced what could only be described as a parents' manual, covering every aspect of school life.
ACE's telephone help lines means we hear about most kinds of problems that crop up in schools. Misunderstandings and conflict often arise where parents aren't aware of particular school rules or where policies are vague or non-existent. I was on the look-out, therefore, for schools which were up-front about issues like bullying and complaints procedures - and used these as positive selling points. I particularly liked the inclusion in one prospectus of a Bill of Rights which a secondary school had developed with its pupils, and which addressed issues such as bullying and behaviour.
I was also looking for the way that schools spoke to parents and pupils in their prospectuses - some were rather formal and brisk whereas others were welcoming from the first page. Springmead, the winning primary, had a magical opening introduction from Year 6 pupils. Their view of their school really spoke to the reader, and their place at the centre of the school was evident from their involvement in the production of the prospectus.
To help parents, it's helpful if the prospectus gives a flavour of the school's distinctive character. In judging the prospectuses, it soon became apparent that many aspects of a school's ethos could be read between the lines. But those which succeeded in conveying a coherent picture of their school tried harder in this respect, choosing photographs and illustrations carefully, and often including personal detail. Quotes from pupils and teachers brought a nice personal touch to the winning secondary school prospectus, for instance.
In many brochures, photographs conveyed what was not put into words. The best used pictures not just to make the prospectus attractive, but to tell their own story - putting faces to names or showing the out-of-class activities on offer.
In the case of the winning special school, a video, which accompanied the excellent written booklet, used pupils to bring to life information about the curriculum, teaching and facilities. Most parents pick up a lot of information about schools talking to other parents at the school gate. Informal information-gathering of this sort is more difficult for parents considering a special school for their child. The video helped fill this gap.