Why we need those awkward questions

4th October 1996 at 01:00
If you've been following the progress of our school's survey of parents, you'll be relieved to know that the end is in sight.

It was conducted just before Easter, and used as a major topic for our annual report to parents and the subsequent meeting. During the summer, staff and governors have been formulating an action plan, both to effect change where appropriate and explain our current practice.

This is not just a marketingpublic relations exercise, though it is that too. Our first requirement of parents, in view of the price tag on every child, is that they continue to send their children to us, have more babies and recommend us to their friends. We hope that by showing ourselves to be a listening school, we strengthen their confidence in and loyalty to us.

On a less commercial level, we believe that children will be happier and more successful at school if they can see their parents and teachers working closely together, supporting each other and the children. Parents as partners need to be well informed about what their children are learning and how it is taught. They need to feel confident to ask questions and get involved.

We asked our parents to respond to 18 positive statements about the school on a scale of five to one, from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Half a dozen questions averaged over four, none averaged under three. Against this broad background of approval and support, it was not a demoralising exercise for staff and governors to look at the areas scoring less than 3.5: discipline, homework, lunchtime supervision, school security, music, sport and class size.

We asked for comments as well as scores for each question and followed these up at the annual meeting.

Fortunately, The Man Who Asks Awkward Questions turned up - you must have met him, the one who wants strict discipline, reading schemes, tables tests and proper sports days with winners and losers. No parents' meeting should be without one; how can we answer the difficult questions if no one asks them? My lovely headteacher, who knows him to be a good man who cares deeply about his children, treated his opinions with great respect. Unlike many of his kind, he listened to what we had to say too, and ended up volunteering to help at the next school fair.

We have been able to respond positively to a lot of what parents told us they want. Increasing pupil numbers mean that we have been able to employ an extra teacher and at least start the year with class sizes of under 30. We have increased lunchtime supervision too, partly by juggling classroom ancillary hours so that two of them work across lunchtime. Staff have volunteered extra lunchtime activites and the parent-teachers' association is fund-raising for outdoor equipment.

School security has been tightened so that all outside doors are locked during the school day and a generous grant from a local charity means we can buy many more musical instruments for children to borrow.

We have taken the opportunity to explain our approach to homework - that it should be interesting and meaningful rather than more of the same, and that we do not wish it to be a misery to children or parents. We took the opportunity to plug our parents' workshop as the best way to understand and help with children's work. We are unrepentantly continuing our practice of disciplining children privately without humiliation.

What can they possibly find to complain about next year?

Joan Dalton is a governor in the Midlands

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