What goes around, comes around

The news that the two professional associations representing the bulk of schools leaders are to collaborate on a new set of school information to help parents selecting schools reminded me of my first foray into this market nearly 30 years ago. The Parents’ Guide to Schools in London’s Commuterland wasn’t a commercial success for its publisher, but it did mark probably the first attempt to bring together in one place information about state secondary schools.

Before the famous Section 6 of the 1980 Education Act enshrined parental preference into law, and led to the publication of school prospectuses, and examination results, obtaining information was a bit of a hit and miss business. Even in the early 1980s, not all local authorities conformed to the spirit of the 1980 law. Curiously, it was often tightly controlled Labour authorities that could provide all prospectuses for all schools within the authority from one central point, whereas I well remember the suspicion of schools in Tory controlled Kent where there was no central distribution point, and it was a matter of contacting each school. Some even told me they only sent information to prospective parents after they had visited the school.

When I compiled my book, based upon a similar format for the New York area already being published by the New York Times, I was clear it was a geographical listing and not a set of league tables because that was too simplistic a representation: a point currently being made by the head teachers. So complicated was my guide that the accompanying notes to help parents understand each entry ran to three pages. This may help explain why it was not a commercial success. However, I think it more likely that arranging schools in geographical order allowed parents to brose in bookshops and obtain the key information without paying the £6.95 required to buy the book. With hindsight, I might have made my fortune if the publisher had created a hardback version at a much higher price and sold it exclusively to estate agents. But, it was a case of, live and learn, as this was my first venture into commercial publishing as an author. As it was also the publishers’ first venture into typesetting a book completely from computer output on disk; a fact that allowed it to be produced within six weeks from disk to bookshelf.

One sign of the times was that in 1986 I included the different types of IT systems schools operated, as well as all the Examination Boards they used. This was because the guide was originally conceived as an aid to parents moving into a new area that knew nothing about the local schools. Such parents, and their offspring, are still largely ignored in the debates about the presentation of school information but remain an important group across the country. Many parents faced with a job move confront the agonising choice of weekly commuting or a house and school move. Often the house move is still the easy part, but the school move needs considerable research. In that respect the head teachers can help this group with how they present the information. After all, those living in the area are still as likely to focus on gossip and school gate recollections as on hard facts, whereas incomers have a real need for quality and easily interpretable information: something the DfE data has never been.

Below, I have reproduced an entry from my 1986 guide.

High School

Address and phone number

County Comprehensive Mixed- a mixed comprehensive schools

Formed in 1984 from the merger of two existing schools

Intake 150 Staying on rate NA  HE rate NA

Microcomputers 10 RML 480Z (network); 10 BBC B

Exam Boards RSA, P, C+G

English 30%; Maths 11% of whole year group passing

1985 ‘O’ level exam results % of entries with A-C grades

E

M

F

P

C

B

H

G

TD

HE

Gn

Art

Elit

Ec

RE

52

68

13

63

40

40

62

48

15

19

40

33

48

 

67

Features: 1st year taught in mixed ability groups. Yrs 2/3 same curriculum with Ger for those able. Ability bands in 4/5th yrs with English, maths, RE, PE and games, health ed and a possible 6 other subj. Remedial ed available on individual or small group basis. Careers guidance in timetable in yrs 4/5. Extended library, completely refurbished gymnasium and bldg programme well on its way. Swimming pool. The school has a uniform. Many activities incl animal care, chess, computing, karting and models. Brass band, orchestra, music theory, recorder group and music/drama productions. Most sports incl keep fit and squash. Skiing journeys with lesson dry slopes. European journeys vary each yr. Annual visit to Hamburg. Youth Club activities 2 evenings a week.

1985 ‘A’ level Examination Results numbers passing (numbers entered)

Eng 9[10]; Maths 6[9]; Fr2[3]; Phy 8[11]]; Chem 2[6]; Biol 1[3]; Geog 5[10]; Hist 1[1]; Econ 7[12]; Ger 1[1]; Art 5[6]; RE 2[3]; Tech 2[2]

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