Home Truths

Some weeks ago there was a little flurry of new websites, launched to help parents rate and comment on their local schools. This idea isn’t new, and many of the existing parent forums, like mumsnet, already include conversations about schools, often naming individual institutions.

But so far no single forum has emerged as the equivalent of, say, Tripadvisor for education. I am sure many people will be breathing a collective sigh of relief at that. This sort of feedback is often viewed with suspicion or even downright mistrust by teachers as it could risk being too personal, subjective, and provide the opportunity for small groups or individuals with a particular grudge to wield disproportionate influence.

However I think resisting more explicit parent voice is a mistake. A few years ago I was involved in a project with the charity Family Lives, looking at what information parents really wanted from their local schools. We carried out focus groups around the country and polled 1000 parents from a cross section of school phases, state and private. The results showed remarkable unanimity. For a start the vast majority of parents were very satisfied with their local schools – and that isn’t something we read much about in the press.

They were exercising choice, but within clearly understood limits. Most expressed a strong preference for a local school with good teaching, behaviour and a broad curriculum that developed their children intellectually, socially and emotionally. They wanted their children to be safe and happy as well as qualified and to have the chance to pursue subjects that interested and engaged them.

The traditional tools of the market – Ofsted and league tables –were important; but parents were without question also looking to trusted local sources for ‘softer’ information, trading exam results and inspection grades against less easily measurable but more impressionistic local knowledge and opinion. For many of the respondents, reputation in the community counted at least as much as performance tables.

Closed channels

I think this should encourage us. We are very unlikely to go back to an era where parents don’t exercise some choice, or feel entitled to information about their children’s schools. The fact that people value a more rounded picture should be heartening rather than a threat. We just need to find a way to help them see that broader picture.

The emergence of these privately promoted websites may reflect the limits of the current accountability measures. They may also suggest that, in spite of all the talk about parent choice from government, parents’ views aren’t really taken into account systematically.

In the early days of the Ofsted, inspectors used to hold a meeting for parents, then the process was slimmed down to a questionnaire. Now the short notice given to schools about an inspection visit has made even that impossible, so parents are urged to complete the Ofsted Parent View section of its website at any time of the year.

This can produce background information for the inspection, or actually trigger a visit if enough parents make sustained and similar concerns. But the limited nature of this online survey and the relatively poor take-up suggest that even government doesn’t quite know how to capture what might be seen as the ‘consumer voice’ in education, Restrictions on consultation about forced academisation for failing or ‘coasting’ schools, recently outlined in the new Education and Adoption Bill, are just further evidence of how little parents views are really valued.

Time to share

Is there a better way? Personally I would like to see schools having more confidence to solicit, publicise and share parents’ views more widely – and this could be done in a secure manageable way through the school’s own website. It would send a signal that the school is open, confident and ready to listen. It could also encourage other prospective parents to see the school in a more generous light than the raw data might sometimes suggest.

A more recent survey undertaken by PTA UK revealed that even though the information that parents value most highly is the opinion of other parents, only one in five are currently given access to parent satisfaction surveys and only 41% of parents report having been prompted by their school to give feedback.
This suggests that many heads still believe the risks of encouraging more candid parent views are still seen as outweighing the benefits. But in my experience all but the most obstructive parents respond positively if they are listened to, respected and trusted.

So this could trigger better relationships all round in schools – while also giving a more realistic, nuanced picture of their daily life than we can ever get from the arid DFE performance measures. In an era of concern about ever more narrow public accountability, we should welcome that.

About the author

Fiona Millar is a columnist for guardian education and a co-founder of the local schools network. (localschoolsnetwork. Org.uk).