Published on: 26 Apr 2012

The government has repeatedly emphasised the importance it places on stakeholders and their views on schools, especially parents, after the Department for Children, Schools and Families discovered that the involvement of parents in school had a greater influence on a child's attainment than family background, size of family and level of parental education had.

Parents: The Key Stakeholder? Ian Rowe

The government has repeatedly emphasised the importance it places on stakeholders and their views on schools, and none more so than parents, says Ian Rowe.

One of the drivers of this change was the study conducted by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2008. It found that, for children between the ages of seven and 16, the involvement of parents in their school had a greater influence on attainment than family background, size of family and level of parental education.

The coalition government has clearly signalled that it sees parents as the key stakeholder and the new inspection framework laid out by Ofsted is notable for the changes it will bring to how parents’ views are sought and the weight given to the opinions they express. For years, schools have used a prescribed self-evaluation process, in which parental opinion played an important part. But Ofsted has been clear that it is no longer enough for schools to produce self-evaluation reports; they need to validate the results and demonstrate a robust methodology.

Ofsted’s view

Ofsted laid out its thinking in its 2010/11 annual report: “Most commonly, the governing body knew too little about the school because monitoring was not rigorous or because over-generous self-review judgements were accepted without sufficient challenge.” It added: “At times of great change and in an inherently challenging sector, they accepted too much on trust.”

As governors, it is imperative that we become more critical in inspecting our school’s approach to self-evaluation in this area. After all, not only will inspectors soon be able to turn up to inspect a school at a moment’s notice, they will also require the involvement of the governing body in the inspection process and they will give greater consideration to the views of parents, pupils and staff. The importance of parents’ views is a common theme that has run through much of recent government policy, from the special educational needs and disability green paper to the Bew review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability. However, the real seismic shift in parental involvement has been the introduction of Parent View, a website where parents are encouraged to contribute their views on schools’ performance. This development has worried many schools, concerned that it could let a small group of disaffected parents skew the feedback. At a recent seminar run by NGA, Ofsted confirmed that only three contributions were needed to allow the views to be seen, but assured delegates that far more than that number would be needed to trigger an inspection.

Engaging with parents

There are many ways to engage with parents – and little things can make a big difference. For instance, in primary schools, encouraging headteachers and other members of staff to welcome pupils into school or be at the school gate at the end of the day significantly increases their visibility and can have a major impact. A successful parent council or parent/teacher association (PTA) is also essential. Parent councils provide a valuable forum for parents to have a voice within the school, providing feedback about key initiatives and a direct channel for the governing body to engage with parents.

Other initiatives might include inviting parents into school to talk about key initiatives within a class or key stage; circulating regular newsletters; and utilising the school website, ParentMail or even a Twitter feed to provide regular updates and encourage dialogue. You can also include information about the governing body and pen portraits of the governors in a dedicated section of the school website, provide governors with recognisable ‘governor badges’ and organise a photo wall in the school reception that includes photographs of both staff and governors. However, arguably the most effective way of canvassing parental opinion is the parental survey.

Tips for a successful survey

One of the perennial problems is getting enough people to respond; there is nothing more frustrating than spending hours designing, producing and distributing a questionnaire for only a handful of parents to complete it. A marketing campaign before the questionnaire is sent out can pay dividends. Use newsletters, ParentMail and the like to tell parents it is coming, and explain why their views matter. It also helps to get the pupils involved – having a motivated child as the conduit between parents and school makes the single biggest difference to a school’s response rates. Schools should also be aware that while online surveys seem easier and cheaper to run, our experience shows response rates can decrease by up to a factor of 10 compared with hard copies sent home with pupils.

One of the hallmarks of a successful self-evaluation process is having a clearly defined goal at the outset. Schools that understand what they want to measure have an immediate head start; they understand what it is they need to know the answers to and which areas of the Ofsted inspection framework will benefit from having evidence taken from the assessment of parental opinion. Often, school leaders struggle with the questions that they want to ask parents. One good technique is to poll opinion on changes that the school has already implemented. This enables school leaders to appraise the success of initiatives and make adjustments to their strategies accordingly. It can also help demonstrate that the governing body has understood what issues need to be addressed.

It is also important to give parents more than a straight scorecard. While this approach makes the task of analysing the results more straightforward, you miss out on the opportunity to put context to some of the results. Qualitative information, such as “any further comments or suggestions”, might take more time to analyse, but it provides an invaluable opportunity to identify potential issues that might otherwise go undetected. An example of this was a comment: “I am no longer able to help my child in year 4 with his maths homework – can someone please help me.”

The Top Five Areas of Schooling For Parents

  1. School discipline
  2. Teaching quality
  3. Happiness of child
  4. Control of bullying
  5. Caring teachers

Source: Kirkland Rowell Surveys

Providing a context

It is best practice to ask two types of questions: ones that assess how satisfied parents are with particular aspects of the school; and ones that assess how important these are to parents. Without asking both types of question, there’s a risk that school leaders will be misled by parents’ satisfaction with aspects of the school that they regard as unimportant – or fail to identify dissatisfaction with important issues. Even those establishments that have a clear understanding of what to ask parents can face a challenge in interpreting the data they get back. Entering and analysing the data can be a laborious and time-consuming task. Some schools employ third parties to do this. When taking this approach, it is essential to take into account statistical reliability. Without it, an average score of three on a scale of one to five could mean everyone is neutral towards that question, or it could mean that parents are polarised between being highly satisfied or extremely dissatisfied with the area in question.

Demonstrating improvement

One of the first things Ofsted will look at when reviewing the self-evaluation data from parents is how things have changed from the previous year. Inspectors will want to know that the governing body has been aware of (and acted on) any issues that have arisen and they will want to see continued improvement over time. If you are able to demonstrate impact in areas linked to your school improvement plan and have the evidence to back it up, it will be worth its weight in gold.

The results of parental surveys should feed into the school improvement plan – if there are any obvious areas of concern, these naturally suggest where action needs to be taken. With any stakeholder survey, it is also important to feed back the findings. Failure to do so will mean response rates will drop off with the next survey and as you will want to annually re-evaluate, you do not want this to happen. The leaders at your school should be prepared to discuss the results – whether it has been a lightning rod for parental disaffection or reason for celebration. Remember, you are measuring perception. You may be outstanding in a particular area, but your parents may just not be aware of it.

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