To parents, thriving children are more important than the academies debate

'Most of the parents we spoke to were not only uninterested, but frankly unaware of what academisation means'

'Most of the parents we spoke to were not only uninterested, but frankly unaware of what academisation means'

17 Dec 2022, 5:00

Parents value happy, thriving children over school structures, despite the raging academies debate – and policymakers need to remember that, writes Meg Price.

Fire up edu-twitter this month and you’d think academisation was one of the top issues for parents in England.

With the recent shelving of the schools bill and the reinspection of outstanding schools by Ofsted, much of the commentary from the great and the good in the education world has been about school structures and how the overall system should (or shouldn’t!) be designed a certain way.

But every now and then, I think it’s vital to step back from that policy discussion and remember what schools are all about – children and, by proxy, their parents and guardians.

That’s why my colleagues and I have spent the last year talking to parents about what they want from primary education – working in association with Unison and the NAHT.

We focussed specifically on parents of the so-called ‘red wall’, who will be so pivotal for both major parties at the next election.

Earlier this week we published our findings in a report, ‘Towards a new generation of community schools – listening to the parents of the red wall’.

Most of the parents we spoke to were not only uninterested, but frankly unaware of what academisation means, and none of them could tell you any major impacts of academisation – positive or negative.

“I’m not bothered if it’s an academy or not” said one focus group participant whilst another added “I don’t know exactly what that [being an academy] means…I don’t really get anything different”.

Many parents ‘not influenced by Ofsted’

Similarly, many parents were not influenced by Ofsted inspection reports and grades – they would much rather choose their children’s schools based on local reputation and word of mouth.

There was some confusion about what value Ofsted inspections added – what they do specifically and what the grading really means for their children in reality.

“I used to think only outstanding would be the best place for them to go. And now I’m questioning that a little bit and looking at the other things as well” said a woman from Wolverhampton.

However, schools’ Ofsted results were familiar to many in our groups, and were certainly preferred to SATs results as an indication of quality.

Another fascinating area was technology.

Rather than engage in binary debates around more or less technology in the classroom, parents provided a nuanced view in comparison to the otherwise relatively set camps in the policy world.

They felt that younger children should have less exposure whilst older children should be exposed to it gradually, with a greater focus on building skills for their future working lives.

‘More about skills around tech than fancy tech’

Once again, parents of the red wall continued to articulate a measured policy position which seems both sensible and achievable – “I think it’s more about skills around tech rather than it being around ‘we need some fancy tech’.”

The message from these parents was clear: they have little time for, or knowledge of, the large debates that dominate our twitter timelines, and they care about outputs and outcomes rather than structures and processes.

It’s probably not surprising that parents in the red wall are fundamentally most interested in the day-to-day experience of their children in school – such as the availability and affordability of wrap-around care and the number of teachers and teaching assistants in the classroom.

But even if it seems obvious now, too often in my experience this simple fact can be easy to ignore in education policy debates.

As all political parties start thinking about their manifestoes in the coming months, I could not recommend more highly that they listen to the parents we spoke to.

Because among the many things they care about in education, one thing has total primacy – that their children are happy and thriving. And a manifesto that forgets that will not be a winning one in their eyes.

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