Education Sep 15 2011

What parents really want from schools

For the past few months I have taken some time out from the daily blogging and journalism and spent time travelling around the country for a project looking into school accountability and what parents really want from schools.

It has been a fascinating experience. My first encounter with “school accountability” came in the early 1990s. My two elder children had just started at a local primary school. Shortly afterwards the school underwent one of the first inspections carried out by the new Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) and the result were damning. Two years later the first primary school league tables appeared. Maybe unsurprisingly their school was ranked second from bottom in its local authority area. The spotlight that was shone on what was clearly a failing institution had ramifications that were felt for years to come.

The decision to introduce annual tables of school performance had been introduced some six years earlier. The 1988 Education Reform Act established a National Curriculum which was to be accompanied by tests at 7, 11 and 14 to precede the existing GCSE and A level exams. The numbers of children reaching expected levels in primary school tests and the numbers achieving five good (A*-C) GCSEs in each school would be published annually and then reported in ‘league table’ form in the national and local press. The intention  was not only to allow government and local authorities to hold schools to account, but also to expose failure, put pressure on head teachers and governors to drive up standards, and to enable parents to exercise informed choice. Four years later the independent inspectorate Ofsted was created and a system of school accountability that has dominated the thinking and actions of schools ever since was complete.

As far as our children’s school was concerned, the very public exposure of its shortcomings, loss of confidence in the local community and the desire to scrape itself off the bottom of the league tables provided a powerful incentive to improve. I became a parent governor, and subsequently chair of the governing body. The school went through difficult times until we found the right head teacher but is now successful, oversubscribed and commands the confidence of many local parents.

Performance tables, published by the Department for Education for the past 20 years, show that there has been a slow steady improvement in the results of most schools since the 1990s. I have no doubt that more accountability to parents, local authorities and central government has played a significant part in that improvement. But over the years troubling aspects of the accountability regime have emerged. It is now widely acknowledged, not least by the Coalition government in its recent Education White Paper, that ‘borderline’ pupils either on the cusp of Level 4 in primary schools or a C grade at GCSE may receive undue attention at the expense of very low or very high achievers.

Meanwhile the desire to maximise the numbers of pupils achieving five good GCSEs appears to have driven some schools to steer pupils towards certain subjects and qualifications which may involve less teaching time and limit young peoples’ chances of progressing to work and university. English school children are now the most examined in the world and both parents and teachers have expressed concern about children being taught ‘to the test’, possibly to the exclusion of a more creative and enjoyable curriculum

The author and journalist Warwick Mansell, whose book “Education by Numbers” is highly critical of what he calls a system of “hyperaccountability”, argues that a combination of too much testing and data driven inspection may actually be damaging the quality of education our children receive. He has support in powerful quarters. Anthony Seldon, the headmaster of Wellington College, a leading public school, has described the current education system as ‘factory schooling’.

Yet whatever critics of the current system may say, school accountability is undoubtedly here to stay. Parents want, and have a right to know, how their schools are doing. In recent years governments have tinkered with both leagues tables and Ofsted, to try and meet some of these concerns. The importance of primary school tests at the end of Key Stage 1 were downgraded in 2005. In 2008 Key Stage 3 tests were abolished. Value added was introduced to address the different starting points of pupils, and to show progress from those starting points. Value added was contextualised to take account of pupils’ backgrounds, the measurement of five ‘good’ GCSE’s was changed to include passes in English and Maths, and more recently a new metric known as the English Baccalaureate has been added to the performance tables. The “EBacc” indicates how many secondary age pupils at each school have achieved five passes above a grade C in five prescribed academic subjects.

The Ofsted framework has also changed several times. The original week long inspections which involved detailed scrutiny of lessons and pupils’ work, and proved so devastating for my own children’s school, were preceded by a six week long notice period. Now most inspections are one or two days long. They come with virtually no warning and focus on judging how well schools are evaluating their performance in over twenty different areas including  standards, quality of education, leadership, pupil well -being, safeguarding and community cohesion. Each area is graded into one of four categories – outstanding, good, satisfactory or in adequate – as is the school overall. This framework will change again shortly and from 2012 school inspection is likely focus more specifically on four key areas; achievement, quality of teaching, quality of leadership and management and the behaviour and safety of pupils.

Meanwhile a new drive for more ‘open government’ has led to the current Conservative Liberal Democrat Coalition releasing raw data sets including information about the income and expenditure of all maintained schools and the performance of secondary schools in every subject. The reason for this, according to the Department for Education website, is so that ‘people can analyse the data themselves’. This week the government unveiled a new “Go Compare!” style website so parents can contrast  expenditure spending, performance and Ofsted judgements of schools in their local areas, although the budgets of academy schools are not made publicly available.

The Government says these commitments represent “the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world.” It is certainly true that parents will have access to more information than ever before but will this still give parents everything they want to help them decide what is best for their children? Amidst all the academic research and political discussion on this issue, the authentic parent voice is rarely heard. In the past few months I have been working with the charity Family Lives and the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning to explore the following areas; how parents gather information about the schools they are choosing; how they make those choices; how they are kept up to date with the progress of their children once they are enrolled in those schools; what more what information they want about the schools they are choosing and the ones in which their children are already pupils.

Through a series of focus groups around the country and a national opinion poll, we gathered the views of more than a thousand parents, from a wide variety of backgrounds chosen to represent all age groups, social classes, regions and school types, including private and state.. The conversations ranged beyond simply school choice and information gathering and into these families’ hopes and aspirations for their children, their belief in what makes a good school and how they want to communicate their views to schools, the wider community and Ofsted inspectors. The final report report is published here.

We started with an open mind, prepared to find a wide cross section of opinion and perhaps the most surprising conclusion was the clear unanimity across a wide range of issues. Parents are discerning, knowledgeable and realistic about what is best for their children – exercising choice but within clearly understood limits.

They are using test and exam results, and Ofsted inspections, to help them make choices but proximity to home and other ‘softer’, more impressionistic local knowledge and information about teaching quality and general reputation is even more important. Most (91%) are successful in getting their children into the first choice of schools, and broadly happy (90%) with provision once their children are enrolled.

They have a clear image of what a good local school should be like; a place with good teaching and results, well managed behaviour and a broad curriculum which develops pupils intellectually socially and emotionally.

And they have a strong  instinct to work with their children’s schools, either directly with the teachers and the head or by getting actively involved as PTA members or governors, if they have concerns. Over 80 % said this would be their preferred course of action if things started to go wrong. Only 6% said they would consider trying to start a free school under the government’s new initiative and there was strong support for parents being able to trigger an Ofsted inspection if a critical mass had the same concerns.

However there are other messages for both policy makers and schools. Parents also want more information than they are currently getting – on a wide range of issues from behaviour bullying, their children’s progress, social and emotional development and well being. They want more regular reports (than once a year). Termly reports either by e-mail post or via the school website are the most popular option.

And all the evidence we received suggested that, regardless of how much information central government provides, parents will still tend to trust and look to local sources of information. School websites were ranked the most popular source of information by our poll and schools could do more to use them to share information with parents, seek their views and allow them to share information with each other.

This would be particularly helpful to the parents of children with Special Educational Needs who are trying to match up specific provision with their child’s circumstances and go beyond “global data” into detailed descriptions of the school environment, the make- up and capacity of specialist teaching staff, out of school provision and the extent to which the school culture is “inclusive”.

Some schools may not like the idea of opening a window on their inner workings in this way, and developing more user friendly, responsive websites will demand resources and investment , but as one father put it , schools need to be brave and ‘face the world’  at a time when social media is being used extensively in other walks of life.

Finally we asked all parents ‘What skills qualities and qualifications should an educated 19 year old have today?” and the answers revealed the concept of a rounded education that goes beyond simple academic qualifications. Exams results matter, and literacy and numeracy skills hugely important, but scores of parents talked of the need for children to  develop confidence, self esteem, social and practical skills like cooking and managing a budget.

They wanted young people to have having options beyond simple academic paths if those weren’t appropriate. Only 25% of parents polled had heard of the English Baccalaureate and parents in the focus groups expressed concerns about what a narrowing of the curriculum may mean for their children

In a country where pupil performance is more closely scrutinised than anywhere else in the developed world, parents appear more conscious than ever that their offspring are also individual human beings whose success in later life may be facilitated by a clutch of good exams grades and qualifications but may also depend on how confident they are, how they relate to others, their social skills, ability to communicate and take care of their own personal well being.

A mother of two primary age boys told us she considered the business of educating her children to be a ‘puzzle’. Ofsted, test and exam results were important, but just one small part of the picture. She summed up the views of many more parents when she said she wanted to be able to see ‘the whole picture’.

It would take a courageous school in the current climate, when narrow  academic success seems more highly prized than ever before, to sell itself as an institution where  personal and practical skills are of as much value  as knowledge and qualifications, but schools which have high expectations of their pupils’ academic performance,  celebrate their development into empathetic, respectful young people and communicate that openly and proudly to their communities, may find themselves to be the ones that most parents will choose after all.

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