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Leadership webinar: how parents choose schools (video and webchat)

Discussion in 'Senior Leadership Team' started by AndrewFIS, May 20, 2016.

  1. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    What is it that parents are looking for when choosing a new school for their child(ren)? Great inspection reports? Strong positions in league tables?

    As part of the TES Leadership webinar series, I’ll be putting your questions to Rowan Davies of mumsnet.

    We will examine some of the findings on the mumsnet forums.

    Post your questions below now - and, if you can, join in our live webchat on June 8 at 4.30pm.

    Before that, you can watch a video we’ve made in which Rowan and I discuss the issues, with key advice for school leaders.


    To access all the videos in the TES Leadership series, plus an exclusive database of grants available to schools, become a TES Leadership subscriber.
  2. TES_Rosaline

    TES_Rosaline Administrator Staff Member

    Good afternoon and welcome to the fifteenth webchat in our series of discussions aimed at school leaders.

    In a few moments I will hand you over to Andrew, who is editor of FIS, who will be hosting this week's hour-long webchat.

    Andrew and this week's guest, leadership expert panel member Rowan Davies of Mumsnet who will be available for the next hour to answer your questions on how parents choose schools.

    If you have any questions please submit them below. Don't worry if we run out of time, any unanswered questions will be responded to and posted on this thread later this week.

    I'll now hand you over to Andrew.

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  3. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    Hello and welcome to this webchat on how parents choose schools. Joining me is Rowan Davies of Mumsnet. For those of you following this thread, please feel free to post your query. Remember to refresh your page to see the updates as they appear.

    Thanks for joining us, Rowan.

    What are the key things that parents review when choosing a school for their child?
  4. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    We asked parents in England and Wales this question via a survey on Mumsnet. They told us that they find the following factors really important: warmth and friendliness (important to 98% of parents at primary school and 96% at secondary); reputation, particularly locally (important to 76% at primary and 73% at secondary); ethos and direction (important to 92% at primary and 95% at secondary); provision of facilities such as wraparound care (important to 48% at primary); and - yes - OFSTED ratings (important to 70% at primary and 73% at secondary).

    Academic attainment is a bigger factor when considering secondary schools; areas considered ‘very important’ at this level include the school’s approach to education (61%), subject range (50%) and GCSE results (48%). Nevertheless, just 22% of parents looking at secondaries considered OFSTED reports ‘very important’ - fewer than those who take the views of the child in question very seriously (39%).
  5. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    Do parents believe that the admissions system is fair?
  6. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    Well, a lot depends on the area, the available choice, and the result! If your experience is that you have a few good schools to choose from (which your child has a realistic chance of getting into) and you end up with a school you’re happy with – which is the case for a lot of parents – then you probably come away with the feeling that the admissions system is pretty brilliant.

    A feeling that it’s unfair will usually only creep in if parents are unhappy with the choice on offer; it’s genuinely grating to know there’s a great school a couple of miles away that your child doesn’t stand a chance of getting into, especially if the one they are likely to get into is less good or less appropriate for them – there’s not much that feels ‘fair’ about that.

    There’s quite a lot of grumbling about faith schools among some parents on Mumsnet; there’s a strong school of thought that if schools take taxpayers’ money, they shouldn’t be allowed to reject taxpayers’ children because they don’t tick the right religious box. (Faith schools do also have some strong defenders though – and again, a lot depends on the admissions policy followed by the schools.)

    Our users do seem to trust LA admissions teams to be fair and transparent in the way they apply the rules. Rules like distance and catchment areas are intuitively easy to understand and we don’t see much complaint about that in itself (although see caveats above about the available choice!). There are some who feel strongly about the ‘selection by house price’ scenario, but it’s been the case in England and Wales for so long that it feels like part of the landscape – Brighton’s lottery system didn’t have a lot of support on Mumsnet when it was first introduced (although we’ve never surveyed our users on that particular question, so that’s more an anecdotal impression.)
  7. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    What are the biggest complaints you see from parents on Mumsnet forums about school admissions?
  8. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    Lack of choice, or anxiety about the choice on offer, is a big one, especially for parents in England and Wales. According to the survey we ran among those parents on Mumsnet, just 44% said they had had a proper choice in terms of secondary schools, while 19% said there was just one school that was likely to offer their child a place, and 37% said that only one of the schools they might realistically get into was one to which they’d happily send their child. Parents selecting primary schools reported slightly higher levels of genuine choice, but even so just 50% of them said they had a realistic choice of more than one school to which they would happily send their child.

    So lots of the complaints we see are from people who are unhappy about the school they’ve been allocated – or (in advance of offers day) people feeling extremely stressed about what’s going to happen.

    The sibling rule seems to be causing some bad feeling in areas where demand for particular schools is very high; there’s a feeling that some parents rather cynically move in practically next door to the school in order to get their oldest child in, and then immediately move further away as soon as the oldest is established there. It can lead to a situation where people who live just down the road can’t get in because there’s a class full of siblings.

    Parents are generally completely accepting that looked-after children and children with additional needs should have priority – in fact they’re very concerned that academies don’t have to give the same priority to children with SEN – but they’re less unanimously sold on the sibling rule where numbers are really tight. (Of course, the flip side is that many parents – especially those who work out of the home, or those whose children still need to be accompanied on the school run – would struggle to get siblings to two different schools; you can’t be in two places at once, and different INSET days and holidays can be a nightmare if you’re paying for childcare. So there isn’t an easy answer!)

    And then there are those few parents every year who end up without a school at all. There do seem to be some areas where the admissions authorities are just hugely struggling with numbers, and there’s a frustration among parents that pipeline problems aren’t being better anticipated – it shouldn’t really be a surprise that in Richmond upon Thames, for example, there are a lot of young families who’re going to want to school places. Most parents don’t really understand why some authorities seem to struggle to provide sufficient spaces. (I’m using Richmond as an example because it’s one that gets named as being problematic year after year – there may well be a very good reason why it’s so difficult but posts on Mumsnet suggest that if there is, it’s not always communicated very effectively to parents.)

    But thankfully, cases of children without schools or allocated to schools miles away remain unusual – and it’s worth saying that every year on offers day, most of the posts we see are from parents who are over the moon with their allocated school, or at least very happy. Overall, most of the complaints can probably be put into two categories: the perception that the available choice is sub-optimal, and the belief that other people are somehow gaming the system and not playing fair.
  9. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    How do parents rate the following as useful in making their choice:
    • inspection reports?
    • league tables?
    • visibility/charisma of the head?
  10. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    OFSTED ratings were considered important to 70% at primary and 73% at secondary, according to our survey – but most didn’t rate them as ‘very’ important. Conversations on the board say again and again that OFSTED is just one tool in the toolkit and that nothing beats actually visiting a school and getting a feel for it, especially during a school day (open evenings are less valued for real insight, although they can also be useful).

    League tables are rarely mentioned; most parents aren’t too concerned about going to ‘the eighth best school in the county’ or whatever – they want a good school, not too far away from home, where their children will thrive. Measures like Value Added can be a bit obscure; some parents immerse themselves in this sort of detail and know exactly what it means, but it doesn’t come up that often in the conversations I’ve seen (and parents are often quite cynical about the reliability of SATS tests and other assessments that are used for benchmarking anyway).

    We didn’t ask our users about heads in our survey – I wish we had now (I always think of at least one question I wish we’d asked just after the survey is released!) But again, from the thousands of conversations on Mumsnet about this, heads are really important to parents. It’s a widely-held view that while a headteacher can make a secondary school, they are the primary school. Heads can make a big difference when it comes to reconciling parents to a school they may not have wanted, and lots of things that parents value flow from the capacity and vision of the head and the senior management team: warmth and friendliness, local reputation, ethos and direction, decisions about facilities such as wraparound care. They also want senior staff to know their children and care about them as individuals. Heads have a hugely difficult brief – they need to be salespeople, CEOs and business leaders, but parents also want them to be inspirational teachers with a real vocation for working with children. It’s a tough job description!
  11. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    How can schools differentiate themselves from the local competition?
  12. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    We're not convinced that parents are really sold on this notion of differentiation. 90%+ of parents want a good school, with a kind, warm, focused environment and decent facilities, where their children will make friends and progress academically. My oldest son goes to a business academy and I have to say, I have never at any point sat down and thought ‘what I really want for my child is for him to know how to put together a really salesy powerpoint and truly understand the meaning of a product spec’. It’s just a red herring. Is your school good (in terms of the factors I’ve listed above)? Yes? Then you’re doing your job and the relevant parents in your community probably already know about you. Whether they put you down as first choice or not will depend on how far you are from their front door, the gut feeling they got when they walked around the school, and whether their friend’s kids already go there and say they like it.

    (Can I ask a question at this point – are schools incentivised somehow (formally or otherwise) by whether parents put them down as a first choice? Or is it just important to keep roll numbers up overall, and first place only matters in that context?)

    Of course there are some groups of parents whose children have particular needs, and these people probably will be looking for something more specific. A big one is children with disabilities and/or SEN; we see so many posts on Mumsnet from parents who have huge difficulty getting appropriate educational provision for children in these circumstances. If you think your school ‘does’ SEN really well then that’s definitely something worth shouting about because there will be parents in your community who will bite your hand off. Do some local press, take out ads on local parenting forums (we do have Mumsnet Local sites too!), ask local organisations and charities who work with these families if they can help you to reach out to them.

    Parents with truly gifted children (in any area – academically, sports, music, drama…) may well also be looking for particular facilities that will ensure their children are stimulated and challenged; parents whose children need extra support may be looking for signs that it’s there – good pastoral provision, imaginative approaches to mental health and wellbeing support, an army of talented TAs (although I realise we’re into wish-fulfilment territory now!) But really, any good school (by which I don’t necessarily mean OFSTED ‘good’) should be able to provide well for all of these children; after all, the alternative is that these children can end up in schools that don’t provide well for them – which really isn’t fair.
  13. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    Do schools appreciate the concerns of prospective parents?
  14. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    Well, we haven’t spoken systematically to school leaders about this so it will be really interesting to hear what TES members think. But my anecdotal impression is that yes, they do. We have a lot of teachers on Mumsnet and it seems to me that as a group they understand parents’ concerns and perspectives very well – after all, they’re often parents themselves.

    If there is a communication issue it’s probably more a case of institutional bias, which occurs in every organisation and sector – if you spend all day immersed in the finer points of school buildings regulations or teacher pay scales or curriculum shenanigans, it might sometimes be hard to draw back and remember that parents tend not to see things through quite the same prism, and that the fundamentals of warmth, friendliness, safety, progress and wellbeing will always come first with parents.

    So maybe an occasional reality check is needed – but overall parents on Mumsnet are immensely sympathetic about the load placed on school leaders and teachers. They understand that it’s a really difficult job with an awful lot of stakeholders and pressure from various sources, and they implicitly trust that most people working in education are there because they’ve got children’s wellbeing at heart. Every time the government (of any political colour) starts making changes to education policy, you can almost feel the parents on Mumsnet closing ranks around the schools and the teachers.
  15. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    Do schools consider parents as partners or opponents?
  16. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    Again, I’d be very interested to hear what TES users think! There’s some evidence on Mumsnet – and it tends to reveal itself around things like dressing-up days and PTA events – that lots of parents would like their status as school stakeholders to be acknowledged more fully; they’d like to be taken more seriously. While they may not be steeped in educational policy or management techniques, they have at least one excellent reason to care deeply about how things go at the school - and it can be extremely frustrating to find that your child’s school sees you as little more than a faceless provider of costumes, cupcakes and reading-record signatures.

    As I’ve said, parents do understand the pressures, but they can sometimes feel that every other stakeholder body – local authorities, central government, school partners, staff – have formal feed-in mechanisms and a way of getting their voices heard by the senior management team. In some schools, especially if things aren’t going particularly well, parents could do with a bit more of that.
  17. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    Finally, does the "right" school (from the parents' point of view) really matter?
  18. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    I think I’d have to say an almost unequivocal ‘yes’ to this one; it matters very much on offers day, and to most parents it will continue to matter. If the school you’ve been allocated isn’t the one you wanted, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all is lost though; some parents discover that the ‘unwanted’ school turns out to be just fine, or even great. Mumsnet users tend to be of the opinion that a truly bad school is really rare, especially at primary level, and that once you’re in you might as well go at it with a will rather than being resentful and sullen about it – not least because children are often pretty skilled at picking up their parents’ attitudes.

    But some parents just have their hearts absolutely set on particular schools and will jump through any hoop – moving house, staying on waiting lists for years – to get there.
  19. AndrewFIS

    AndrewFIS Occasional commenter TES Leadership Expert

    Thanks, Rowan, for joining us this afternoon. If anyone would like to pose questions for Rowan in this thread, please do so and she will answer them later. We hope you found this webchat useful.

    To view other videos of interviews, you can subscribe here. This also includes a host of other benefits.
  20. Rowan_Davies

    Rowan_Davies New commenter TES Leadership Panel Expert

    Thanks very much for having me - look forward to reading any comments and will no doubt see some of you around in The Staffroom on Mumsnet ;-)

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