Asking questions of Parents

Since the inception of Parental questionnaires as part of the Independent Schools Inspectorate toolkit sometime at the turn of the century, the Principals have used an annual survey of parental attitudes to inform their planning for the future. You can see what was hot in 2010 from my annual report of same here This last week we have been interviewing potential candidates for the Head of College post, falling vacant when Mrs Green retires at the end of the Summer. It seems future potential head teachers feel we are somewhat brave in publishing views that might be regarded as criticism, on our website.  What we regard as refreshing honesty, others might consider foolhardy or even worse.

What is unusual about Claires Court Schools is our model of governance; the schools are owned and run by Hugh and James Wilding, steered by capable headteachers with talented senior managers and teachers in support, administered by some remarkable school secretaries, PAs, finance, business, catering, grounds, housekeeping and personnel staff.   My brother and I work full-time within our business, providing what we hope is an appropriate mix of strategic leadership and straightforward day-work, making things happen. We are both supported in our work by wives who are in their own right sector professionals of considerable experience and clout.  Headteachers and their SMTs ensure that our pupils’ councils, constructed appropriately according to age and phase, are able to make comment and feedback on how they, our consumers feel we are doing.  We are partnered in this work by three great Parent-Teacher groups at College, Ridgeway and School. In short, we have established a sensible mix of proprietor, employer, employee, customer and consumer to keep us well grounded and fighting fit.

The questionnaire will not be answered by everyone, indeed perhaps (expect at inspection time) by approximately 33% of our community. It provides a really good safety valve, often highlights areas of concern not visible through other channels, and provides as well very considerable encouragement for us to carry on the good work. The responses do create some tensions; we make clear that the questionnaire is not there as a feedback tool for parents hoping to bypass the headteacher. This has to be so, because I guarantee anonymity for the writers, and I can’t go breaking that principle when I feel like it. The most important positive change in recent years has been the exceptionally positive response we are given to the establishment of a set of core values to hold our young people in good stead for the future.

And it is this area we have found that our former pupils, graduated on to other schools and colleges for the next phase of education beyond the walls of Claires Court, have clearly different experiences than they expected. Whenever you change circumstances, you have every hope that the reasons for change will bring positive outcomes. For parents moving from private to state sector schools, that first advantage of no tuition fees to fund is obvious. What their children notice however,  is that there exists abroad an extraordinary arrogance that ‘successful’ children don’t need boundaries set quite as firmly as this Principal demands, that ‘playing’ hard is appropriate reward for ‘working’ hard, and that the age-related limits for social networking (13),  15+ film and games  classifications, and social drug taking such as alcohol (18), are not appropriate for our kind of children.   It seems that our consistent application of the principles of appropriate behaviour, both in and out of school helps parents hold the line, and once our expectations have been removed, that alternative peer culture, untroubled by our value system, almost forces parents to accept the inevitable breaking of boundaries hitherto held dear.

I am not just talking about 15/16 /17 year olds either. The provision of unfiltered and unmonitored internet access more generally seems to be a right of youth. The nation of Facebook might very well now be 10 times bigger than the UK but the requirement is that its residents must be over the age of 13, and even then supervised in some way.   To find that parents feel their 9 year olds should be permitted to join this adult zone baffles me, in the same way that it does to find Santa putting Call of Duty 3 into the primary child’s stocking, or nail varnish in with Mr Potato Head into the Foundation years’ playpen. Our peer group of parents work hard to hold the faith that childhood is indeed for the young, that playing hard means sport and dance and healthy exercise. Our families live in no Utopian dream that ‘all will be perfect’, but they and we hold firm to the covenant that children need rather less of the ‘old pals’ act and rather more of the honest parenting from Mum and Dad.

So it is that we are now regularly told by curators and visitors alike, in art galleries, castles, museums and exhibitions that our pupils seem exceptionally well behaved, engaged and considerate. Now that expression of approval by people who don’t know us pleases me more than anything, because those characteristics of a CCS pupil are hard won indeed, with no day gone by without boys and girls learning from us first-hand what matters and what is not appropriate.  So come the questionnaire of 2011 and I’ll be looking forward to some more intelligent commentary from those dearest to us, our customers.  It is our parents that see at first hand the benefits of the all-round education our schools seek to bring, and it is they that do deserve a summary afterwards that is self-effacing and honest.  We can only get better by accepting that improvements need to be made. Our aim is of course to be our best selves, and let’s hope in our Jubilee year that we can agree what that looks like!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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