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Reading between the lines on school reports

There appears to be a degree of complacency behind Education Scotland's response to concerns about school inspection reports.

Behind, rather than in the response, because, while the schools inspection body's perspective might be a little complacent so, too, is the attitude of many parents.

Education Scotland's spokeswoman argues that 98% of parents are content the letters informing them of the assessment on their child's school cover all matters of importance.

Yet the brief report that goes out to parents is often little more than a couple of sides of A4 paper, and blandly formulaic in tone. Strengths such as "a supportive environment for learning is provided by staff" are balanced by news that the school is committed to "developing and integrating curriculum changes" into the way it works.

This might indeed answer all of the key questions parents have, or it might be that parents should dig a little deeper. The Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) fears the reports have become impenetrable and vague. The routine conformity of the language used gives the impression, perhaps unfairly, that findings on one school have merely been cut and pasted from another. This is why many members of the SPTC have told the parents' representation body that they simply cannot recognise their school in the letters that they receive.

The letters themselves are an improvement in terms of accessibility, with the judgment on a given school sent direct to relevant parents, rather than them being left to seek out the details for themselves, as was once the case. These shorter reports have been welcomed by many, and were introduced by Education Scotland's predecessor in the interests of clarity and accessibility.

Education inspectors could be forgiven for feeling as if they are caught between a rock and a hard place. The previous report format was found by many to be too long and, in an effort to make reports informative but also brief, the pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction.

The format, the SPTC alleges, drains any sense of the personality of a school. It would not be too hard for school inspection reports to include more detail about activities at the school, new developments or the extent to which parents are involved, for example. This would enable present and future parents alike to have a sense of the school and its character, rather than a corporate overview.

But is that necessary if parents are content with the format?

The SPTC is correct. We need to know more about how schools are performing. However, that will happen only if parents stop behaving as a largely appreciative and uncritical audience.

Sending letters to inform parents, while making more detailed reports available through Parent Councils, is a sensible approach. But Education Scotland should review the content of the letters it sends out.

Meanwhile, parents could play their part by asking more difficult and searching questions.

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