Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The parents' voice

Can & string telephone

Under the new Ofsted framework, parents' opinions carry more weight than ever before. However, Tim Andrew's school has been conducting parent and student satisfaction surveys for several years, and he has survived to tell the tale.

Hearing the student voice? It feels ironic to write about this during a wet autumn lunchtime with pupils who would normally be outside letting off steam bustling around the corridor next to the office. The student voice is all too audible.

We all know, however, that if we can involve students in the life of the school - give them a real say in the way the school is organised and develops - the identity and ownership that follows is very powerful.

Some years ago at Chesham High School, we were agonising over the same issues about the 'parent voice'. We knew well enough what the pushy ones and those with an axe to grind thought of us.

We had a sense of general parental attitudes toward the school and its strengths and weaknesses.

The question was, how could we get beneath the surface and get a really representative view - a rather more sophisticated picture than the Ofsted parental questionnaire of the time?

How could we get management data that really helped us to improve the school, as opposed to the once in four years snapshot with the loaded questions?

We turned to a professional company, or rather we said 'yes' to their approach. Detailed questionnaires were sent out to a quarter of all parents, using the good old 'every fourth in the register' technique.

There was an 80 per cent return, so in public opinion polling terms the data was incredibly reliable. In some schools it would be really hard to get this level of response, but I am sure most could get a statistically significant return.

Curriculum to discipline

We asked how well subjects were regarded; about control of bullying and discipline; satisfactions and dissatisfactions; is the school improving or not?

We now have seven years of trends. The evidence is overwhelmingly reassuring, but there are always pointers; we are not just looking for comfortable messages.

And we know the surveys tell us something real. Problems we know about are reflected in the results as, fortunately, are the remedial actions we take.

For example, running with a deficit budget for many years, we felt we were under-investing in IT. There wasn't much we could do about it at the time, and the parental perceptions survey gave us no comfort.

Eventually we were able to bring in a new head of department and improve the facilities - and this was reflected in the following year's survey.

The information we get is very detailed: how much time boys and girls in each year spend on homework - a statistic that is very interesting to compare with the response to the same question in the pupil survey - differences in attitude in different year groups; availability of internet or other facilities at home; whatever you want to ask.

As the years progress, the longitudinal data become very valuable: we are not diverted by short-term set-backs, nor by quick wins that don't take root. We are in a position to look at trend lines, so we know if we are having an impact on the year group whose behaviour we have been worried about.

Staff reaction

The staff attitude was interesting. I don't think they noticed it was happening in the first year. (Yes they were told and the envelopes went out and were returned via form tutors.)

There was a certain amount of dark muttering: "What are 'they' doing asking the parents questions about us behind our backs?" Now the information is as unusual as the wallpaper: it is just part of the information we have about our performance. We went through the same phases with ALIS and Yellis data years before.

It's probably fair to say that there haven't been any huge surprises. Probably there shouldn't be. We are building a really powerful picture of the views of all the most important 'stakeholders'.

The data is statistically reliable, representative and inclusive; it is, mainly, terrifically life-affirming (not all the messages are comfortable, nor should they be); and it gives us real help in determining our priorities for action.

Our motive for using the surveys was far from defensive, but they were invaluable two years ago when we had an LEA review.

The number of times we were able to influence tentative conclusions by saying: "The survey says..." made it worth every penny we have spent. We had real data about how well we were perceived.

Pupils and staff next

The next step was obvious: survey the pupils. Most parental perceptions are highly coloured by what their children tell them, so it would be surprising if there were huge differences between the outcomes of the two surveys.

But, there are interesting contrasts, and not just in the amount of homework they say is done. Priorities for improving the school are not always the same.

Last year we got really brave and surveyed the staff.

So, we are gathering robust data that gives us a really representative picture of our stakeholders' perceptions of us. It's not expensive and adds little or nothing to existing workloads in the school.

When we factor in feedback from parents' evenings, discussion at staff meetings, the deliberations of the school council and the welter of examination 'performance' data around - so much of it that the challenge is to distil simple understandable information - we think we have a comprehensive set of information that helps us with strategic planning.

So, too much of the student voice outside your room? Go out and tell 'em to pipe down, is my advice, and give them a chance to tell you what they think about the topics that matter to the school. Then ask the parents - all of them. You may just be surprised what they tell you.

After his year as SHA president, Tim Andrew is readjusting to life as head of Chesham High School in Buckinghamshire. The school used Kirkland Rowell to conduct its surveys.

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