Effective consultation with your parents

Written by: HTU | Published:

With recent changes to the Ofsted framework giving greater prominence to the views of key stakeholders, schools need to find new ways of gathering and responding to feedback. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Relations between staff and parents of pupils attending Hammond Community Junior School were not as good as they should have been when David Storrie took over as headteacher three years ago.

“It was not bad but it could definitely be improved,” he said. “This is a good school in an affluent area near Guildford, in Surrey, but parents had not really been brought on board. I wanted to change that and make myself more visible to them and build up some warmth between us.

“I particularly wanted to know what areas of the school parents were unhappy with, where we could make improvements, and what we needed to build on. We wanted to make changes by evolution rather than revolution.”

This level of interaction with parents, and how it is used to shape school policies, is becoming more important than ever. Changes to the Ofsted inspection framework, introduced in September, mean that the schools’ watchdog no longer conducts surveys in school, but schools will have to show that they gather and analyse feedback from parents and staff, which will form part of the process.

A school will be expected to demonstrate that it is taking the wishes and opinions of its stakeholders into consideration and these views will provide important evidence for the inspection. It is the analysis of this feedback that inspectors are particularly interested in.

One way to do this is to encourage parents to use Ofsted’s Parent View online questionnaire. But increasingly schools are going a step further and using external surveys to fulfil this need, including NFER’s attitude surveys.

The main advantage of such an arrangement is that the survey is independent and then a detailed analysis of the findings is provided – a process that can be laborious for schools carrying out their own surveys and analyses. It also offers comparisons against nationally representative norms, giving heads a better idea of how their own school is performing nationally.

A recent Ofsted report, Getting to Good: How headteachers achieve success, found that “determined and resolute leadership from the head teachers was crucial to achieving improvement”.

One of the key steps to doing so was through greater pupil and parental engagement, and opening up better channels of communication. One headteacher was cited in the report as achieving this through consultation with parents on school development and asking open-ended questions to gather views.

At Hammond, the process has achieved results. Mr Storrie explained: “What the survey did was to enable us to build better relationships with parents and informed us about their perceptions of the school. But also the analysis allowed us to compare ourselves against other schools so we got some idea of how we are doing in this respect.

“I’ve found that parents, pupils and staff value the fact that (it was) independent – it can truly be done anonymously so we can’t track back to who said what. That has helped us get a more successful return than we have ever done in the past.”

The school learned, for example, that parents wanted their pupils to do more sport, and that they had concerns over homework.

“We were able to assure them about how much time we were devoting to PE, and reviewed our homework policy amid concerns that parents did not feel confident about supporting their children with some of the requirements.”

The findings of the questionnaires have also helped to shape school policy generally in discussion with the school council: “When we have an Ofsted inspection we will be able to prove that we consult with parents and it gives us something tangible to show them,” Mr Storrie added.

At St Joseph’s College, in Stoke on Trent, meanwhile, the survey has acted as “narrative” to inform and shape the school’s existing self-evaluation and school improvement procedures.

Peter Mayland, the deputy headteacher, explained: “It allowed us to go into some depth about how everyone felt the school was performing in a wide range of areas. We wanted some evidence of where we are and where we needed to improve.”Some of the findings of the survey surprised him, especially the pupil responses.

“This is a school which does not have a bullying problem in terms of violence and abuse, but it was interesting what pupils perceived as bullying,” Mr Mayland said.

“A small number of students responded that there was some bullying behaviour, but when we probed further about what they meant, we discovered that falling out with a friend and having a cross word might be construed as such. So we learned it was more to do with the effects of friendships breaking-up than anything more sinister.” That, and concerns about activity on social networking sites, gave staff an insight into how pupils viewed their own safety and wellbeing and allowed them to put appropriate measures in place.

Carrying out questionnaires and surveys are important for reasons other than Ofsted inspections, however. Research carried out for NFER on its attitude surveys found that they were often used before times of flux – for example, in preparation for a change of headteacher, or a bid for academy status. They were also useful as a “temperature gauge” to assess the impact of change or general atmosphere at any given time.

The findings can be used in a variety of ways. Publishing them on the school’s website with a plan of action shows parents and the community that views are listened to and the school is prepared to take action. They can also be used as the basis of further discussion in a school council meeting, or to alert the senior leadership team to issues they might not have been aware of.

The study into their effectiveness also found that the attitude surveys sometimes resulted in the creation of parent advisory panels, school councils or student parliaments, or even support groups – for example, to help shape school policies on peer-mentoring or anti-bullying strategies.

In some schools, the surveys were also used as the basis for a parents’ information booklet. In others, the findings resulted in workshops being set up for parents wanting to raise their literacy or numeracy levels, or improvements being made to school meals.

Parents should always be informed of the results and school leaders prepared to discuss them, regardless of whether the messages are critical or positive.

The NFER has also asked schools who have used the attitude surveys to specify how, and why, they opted to do them. More than 90 per cent were using them as a preparation for an Ofsted inspection, and all of the schools that responded were including the surveys as part of their self-evaluation process. Almost every school said the benchmarking to national data was useful in helping them determine where they stood in comparison to other schools.

As all headteachers know, some parents can be hard to engage and the strategies schools used to encourage a good response included text message or email reminders, letters, house or team points for the return of completed surveys, prize draws and giving them out at parents’ evenings, together with a pen, with the expectation that they were filled in there and then.

At Healey Foundation Primary School in Rochdale, the attitude survey was sent home with the child’s end of year report, together with a raffle ticket for a £25 store voucher provided the survey was completed and sent back.

It has now become an invaluable resource, said Susan Taylor, the headteacher: “We were spending up to 30 hours every time compiling, distributing and analysing our own questionnaire, and using a forest of paper in the process. It was incredibly time-consuming, and often important issues raised by parents were not spotted or dealt with straight away because it took so long to read through them all and consider the responses.”

The fast turnaround and analysis allowed staff to act quickly on any concerns or recommendations made by pupils and parents.

“If an Ofsted inspector were to ask what parents think of some aspect of the school, I can present the findings immediately, with everything itemised and with the appropriate data contained,” Ms Taylor added.

“The parents are now used to this format and it works well for us. It saves us so much work and yet fulfils the requirements of a procedure that we need to undertake anyway as part of the Ofsted process.

“It is the simplest way we have found yet of canvassing parental opinion and it is absolutely effortless.”



Further information

For details about NFER attitude surveys, visit www.nfer.ac.uk/ppsh



• Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.


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