Recently our school invited parents to visit the school during the day to see the school “in action”.
During the week, parents were given the opportunity to accompany members of the senior management team during observations of lessons. This initiative had been prompted by the findings of the Ofsted parental questionnaire where one of the main concerns raised by many parents was bad behaviour, and its potentially adverse effect on learning.
The fact that some parents thought that behaviour was a problem at the school concerned me. I was only too aware that the school had, in the past, had a reputation for poor behaviour.
For this reason, tackling poor behaviour was one of my top priorities when I became headteacher, and the school has made huge progress in dealing with bad behaviour, both during lessons and generally within the school. However, clearly when a school has a reputation for poor behaviour, this will not disappear overnight. I wondered if the parents’ concerns were simply an automatic response to the school’s past reputation.
Given that I was confident that we had made real improvements in pupil behaviour over the last year, it struck me that the main problem was perhaps one of perception. The question therefore was how this perception could be challenged. The most direct way was to let parents see for themselves – hence the week of parent visits.
The feedback from parents who visited the school was almost universally positive. In some cases, parents were genuinely surprised at how quiet and well-behaved the pupils were in lessons. It was apparent that some parents thought that children were going to be running amok and that the lessons would simply be an exercise in crowd control.
It is clear that, for many parents, there is a significant gap between their perception of the school and the day-to-day reality. Why should this be? Perhaps the most interesting point to emerge from this exercise was the role of the children in shaping the parents’ perceptions. Intuitively one would expect a parent’s perception of the school to be largely based on, or at least significantly influenced by, their child’s experience.
However, several parents reported that on telling their children about the visit to the school and how surprised they had been at how well-behaved all the pupils were, the response from their child was – “well, what did you expect?”. The children obviously knew about the improved behaviour but this change had, in many cases, not been communicated to the parents.
Changing a long-held perception is challenging. Children returning home and telling their parents about their experiences at school presumably feeds into the parents’ idea of what the school is like. However, we all know that children are not always the most reliable messengers and our recent experience suggests that there may well be a significant gap between the pupils’ view of the school and that of their parents.
In the same way that it is said that no-one is interested in good news stories, it may well be that this disparity arises because children do not tell their parents about the really good lessons where everyone was well-behaved and just got on with their learning. They are likely, however, to tell their parents about the occasional lesson where bad behaviour was an issue.
How a school is perceived is critically important and is perhaps something that schools should try and actively manage more. We would do well to remember that, while the impression parents have of the school will clearly be based on their own child’s experience, they may not always be getting the full picture from that source alone.
Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.