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'What do parents and pupils really think of secondary school? Well, I asked them...'

This teacher surveyed pupils and parents about what makes a good teacher and the challenges of secondary school – and the results were surprising

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This teacher surveyed pupils and parents about what makes a good teacher and the challenges of secondary school – and the results were surprising

My own daughter starts secondary school this September and, like any parent in this position, I find that this defies all laws of nature as she only uttered her first words last week. Having explored the "shifting identities" involved in balancing teaching and parenting for my doctoral research, I find myself, a decade into becoming a parent, turning back to what it means to be a parent of a child about to embark on secondary school.

For secondary schools, engaging parents is frequently cited as a big challenge. The verb "to engage" is an interesting one. All too often it can be: "to pin them down and tell them what they should be doing to deal with their child’s behaviour/support their child’s homework/get their child reading." In the life of a busy teacher, "engaging" a parent can easily become synonymous with giving them instructions from what might fairly be perceived as the school’s ivory (or red-brick) tower.

Like each stage of parenthood, this one presents new challenges. I thought I’d sail through. After 20 years in a range of schools, what could I not know about secondary schools? Surely my experience, combined with my gut instinct, would mean I’d easily be able to find a school suited to our daughter. But it hasn’t quite worked out like that, and I find myself looking ahead to the teenage years with a mixture of apprehension and dread, coloured in part by the full knowledge that I was the most vile teenager possible…

So, in the spirit of "giving voice" (or "being nosey", if we’re being honest about it), I’ve started to ask parents and students what they really think of secondary school. What are their frustrations and what is working well? The emerging findings of a survey that so far represents 323 parents and 113 students are proving most interesting (with all the caveats about skewed samples and the dominance of teacher-parents themselves!).

How do parents perceive their children and how do the children perceive themselves? Both parents and students were given the same list of adjectives (with the option to add their own) and were allowed to select as many as they felt described their child/themselves.

  • Introverted/shy
  • Confident
  • Restless
  • Sensitive
  • Sporty
  • Volatile or moody
  • Studious
  • Sociable
  • Anxious
  • Ambitious
  • Creative


I expected "volatile" or "moody" to top the charts, but in neither case has it. For the parents, "sensitive" tops the bill with 54 per cent of responses, with "sociable" a close second. And for the students? "Ambitious" is top with 56 per cent, with "studious" in second place with 51 per cent. This is most interesting. The students are telling us they really do want to do well – this squares with teenagers I have spoken to. Their aim in life is not to sabotage or evade work, but to be respected by their peers. Their biggest fear, in most cases, is "looking stupid". Incidentally, "volatile or moody" came bottom for the teenagers themselves.

'The stress to compete at school'

Respondents were asked to identify any physical, emotional or mental factors that mean they struggle at school. This bit makes for humbling reading. Dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, bullying, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are cited frequently by parents. The students are slower to give a SEND diagnosis, but also frequently cite depression and anxiety, alongside "distracted by my phone" and "fear of death". This young person’s response broke my heart a little, and is worth citing in full:

"The stress to compete, to remain sane. The notion of competing sickens me, but I have recently learned that that’s what’s it takes. My ideology of refusing to see it as a competing has gotten me no way, so I guess it’s time I finally admit to myself that I need to compete. To compete against my classmates, against Year 11s across the country. Because in the end those who compete for the win are those that are successful, right ?"

Parents and students are asked to identify their level of agreement with a series of statements.

For parents, 71 per cent agree or strongly agree with the statement "my child enjoys school", and 70 per cent agree that their "child has good relationships with their teachers". This drops to below 50 per cent for "my child’s teachers understand their needs and strengths and respond appropriately".

Parents were asked to select factors that cause stress or tension at home in the context of education/success at school. Perhaps unsurprisingly, screen time comes first, with homework and revision close behind them.

By far the most revealing section is the one in which respondents are asked to complete the following sentences:

The best teachers…

The worst teachers…

For parents, the terms most frequently used to describe the best teachers are: "understand", "engage", "inspire", "listen", "are positive", "are enthusiastic" and "are interested".

For students, a sense of humour ranks highly – they frequently write of appreciating teachers who "are human" and "admit it when they get it wrong". Other favourite features include being "approachable", "understanding" and "supportive". The attributes of being "fun", "friendly" and, perhaps surprisingly, "strict" also rank highly.

For parents, the most frequently used words to describe the worst teachers are "not interested", "tired" (ouch), "unfair", "judgemental" and "go through the motions".

I have always said that the best form of "monitoring" any school can do is to ask the students. Ask them how often their teachers mark their books and whether the feedback helps them. Ask them why they love maths so much. They’ll always tell you straight.

So these responses from students to the "worst" teachers are most enlightening. "Rude", "boring" and "shouty" top the bill for features that frustrate students most, along with those "who don’t listen" and those "who don’t care about their subject" or "don’t know what they’re talking about". This response also made me sit up and pay attention:

"Those who are inconsiderate. Those who are not understanding. Those who are judgemental. Those who patronise. Those who put fear into you as a way to motivate you. Those who compare to an extent that is not needed. Those who give you anxiety and you try to avoid. Those who don’t understand that we are 11-16-year-olds and it’s OK to make mistakes! Those who think that their subjects are better than other subjects. Those who don’t fully understand mental health, such as anxiety and more. Those who don’t understand that we are 11-16, we get tired and angry like them. Those who take out their anger on us then aren’t considerate when we are angry/sad. Those who use their status to fear." 

Students were asked what they worry about most when they think of the future. Another humbling read. Money dominates here.

Finally, students were asked for their dreams for the future. Happiness ranks highly. So do sport and music. Some 9 per cent say they want to become teachers themselves. So there is always hope.

Please get involved:  all responses are entirely anonymous and the survey takes no more than 10 minutes. The parent survey is here: surveymonkey.co.uk/r/DDXBPKG, and the student survey is here: surveymonkey.co.uk/r/CN57ZM5

Emma Kell is a full-time head of department in north-east London and completed her doctorate in education last year. She is the author of How to Survive in Teaching

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