A new consultation on school inspections has raised the question of how much attention the inspection body Ofsted should pay to the views of parents.
“We…. intend to take greater account of parents’ views in helping us to decide when a school should be inspected. We are currently considering new ways in which parents’ views about a school will be gathered regularly and not just at the time when it is inspected. We propose to gather parents’ views by inviting them to answer a range of questions about their children’s school via Ofsted’s website. These findings will be considered as part of the risk awareness process.”
Hold on a minute – did they say listening to the views of parents would become “part of the risk awareness process”. Time to sit up and listen. Here is a government body appearing to embrace the idea that the users of a public service might have something really important to tell them about that service. This is not about going through the motions of listening for the sake of it but because they recognise that there is a real risk in failing to do so. And they want to do it “regularly”! Better and better.
Parent Opinion Website
Although we think the use of structured questions to parents proposed in the consultation document will be useful for inspectors in deciding whether to carry out an inspection, it would make sense to complement this with an independent “Parent Opinion” website along the lines of the well-established Patient Opinion website which invites individual stories both good and bad and allows health organisations to respond and to tell people what they have done as a result of the feedback. They sign up healthcare providers to subscribe to the service and take the information on board as part of their patient-centred quality processes as well as providing a response to the individual.
James Munro of Patient Opinion describes it appeal:
“At Patient Opinion we’ve learned a lot about how people want to give their feedback to health services, and what they expect to see. First, while many people may want to give critical feedback, they don’t necessarily want to “make a complaint”. This seems to be a distinction the health service struggles to grasp. Second, people want to know that they can be honest, without fear of being identified. They want to say both what was good, and what could be better. We’ve learnt that this honesty, and the mix of feedback that results, is important to both patients and staff. Third, people want to know that their feedback was heard – and by whom. And finally, they want to see that giving feedback can, at least sometimes, make a difference”.
It is easy to see how this could work for parents and schools.
Making OFSTED aware
When my daughters’ school started to fail in a huge number of different ways, it was the parents, particularly those who had been around for a while, who saw what was happening. We set up a Parent Forum to try to channel parents’ concerns into the management of the school. Parent governors struggled to make themselves heard at governors meetings by senior management and the local authority but to no avail. Eventually one parent sneaked off to phone Ofsted to ask them when they were next due in the school. She was told that because the last inspection which had taken place several years earlier had shown that all was well, they were not planning to come back for another three years. Thanks to her courage and persistence the inspectors turned up a few months later and set the ball rolling for major change.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could simply have gone on-line and given voice to our anxieties knowing that someone somewhere was listening? Well, we parents might think so but the teaching unions feel otherwise.
Teacher resistance – same old, same old
In response to the consultation Christine Blower of the NUT has said;
“The ability for parents to complain directly to Ofsted is already in place and has been very rarely used, which shows that parents are generally very supportive of their children’s schools”.
Two classics here: first, the implication that because no-one can find their way their way through a labyrinthine and intimidating process it means that everyone is happy (rather than reflecting how hard it is to complain) and secondly, the assumption that parents who complain are not “supportive” of their children’s schools – when in fact the complete opposite can often be the case.
She goes on:
“Parents will not want to be involved in triggering early inspections. To offer such an opportunity is unnecessary. What is important for parents is that they have a voice in schools and that their views are taken seriously. It’s not clear therefore why parents, who may have quite legitimate questions to which they seek answers, would choose this route.”
I wonder how Ms Blower knows what parents feel about triggering early inspections. I am not aware that the NUT spends much time talking to parents. Of course no-one wants their school publicly damned by inspectors but that does not mean they don’t sometimes welcome an inspection. It may not seem a “necessary opportunity” in the teachers’ eyes but in the absence of any other form of influence, it may feel very necessary to parents.
Cut back on the parent voice
It would be great to think that there are good and effective routes within all schools for raising concerns and sharing them with others but the simple fact is that that although there are many examples of excellent practice, it is certainly not universal. Hardly any schools have parent councils; new Trust schools, Academies and Free schools can get away with even fewer parents on governing bodies that maintained schools and complaints policies, as we have discussed before on this blog, are both bureaucratic and feeble. An open and easily accessible on-line forum could provide schools with an effective means of hearing what parents have to say- removing many of the practical, social and emotional barriers that stop so many parents challenging their school or even just making their voices heard: the meetings at children’s bedtimes, the other parents who speaker louder and longer, the childhood memories of being intimidated by teachers.
No hiding place
And then of course there is the usual reaction of public service professionals to the idea of allowing service users to express their views on the service in a public forum, a reaction we have seen before in health. Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT union, said:
“To hold schools to account on the basis of chat room and internet gossip trivialises public accountability and the work of schools. Such a system would be open to abuse and manipulation and would therefore be an inappropriate and unreliable mechanism for triggering something as serious as inspection.”
No-one is suggesting that the on-line collection of data about pupil and parent views and experiences would be the sole way in which a judgement would be made about a school. But as one of a range of ways of testing the quality and impact of what you are doing, its value cannot be denied. It is insulting to parents to think that they are not capable of putting forward rational and balanced perspectives. Of course there will be some nastiness, some nutters, some fruity language but isn’t it about time professionals stopped being so squeamish about this sort of thing? Ignoring cross people only makes them crosser and the internet and social networking are out there whether the teachers and doctors like it or not. And while we are at it, why not have a similar website for the students?
Websites like Patient Opinion have demonstrated that the vast majority of people are careful about what they write and most of the organisations that engage with people through the website find the experience and the data they gather useful. In fact the schools might be surprised to find, as Patient Opinion does, that they receive a significant amount of positive and useful feedback. Some schools might even welcome it as a way of keep their finger on the pulse of their parents’ opinions.
The Moore Adamson Craig Partnership supports user and public participation, trains lay representatives and develops responsive health, care and education organisations.