Mark Chaplin shares insight into how primary headteachers can design a questionnaire for parents that will help them carry out effective self-evaluation at their primary school

Self-evaluation is, for many school leaders, just another necessary demand on time and resources, which can become little more than an exercise in ticking the right boxes on the SEF form. If, however, it is carried out with a school-wide commitment to improvement, the process can become an invaluable tool in successful school management.

Measuring satisfaction and identifying priorities for improvement, if done well, will reduce your reaction times when problems arise and help you to target your resources more cost-effectively. If not well planned, your satisfaction surveys will generate misleading evidence and leave you with a mountain of data which ultimately tells you very little.

Achieve a good response rate
Even in a large school, if you only achieve a 10% response rate, you will probably have the opinions of the stakeholders who are either most delighted or most unhappy. The higher the response rate the more likely it is that your results will be representative of the silent majority. There are a number of ways of improving your response rate.

Engage the understanding and support of the teachers who will distribute the questionnaires and collect the returns. Ensure that your teachers do not feel threatened by the process by explaining that you are measuring perceptions and not performance.

Monitor which pupils have returned a questionnaire and encourage those who have not to do so. Explain to pupils that it is their job to get their parents to complete the form and to return it.

Don’t survey parents and pupils before November; new pupils and their parents won’t be able to answer many questions. Avoid distributing questionnaires in December, when Christmas cards are being handed round. Allow two full weeks of term time for questionnaire returns, unbroken by holiday.

Questionnaire design
Keep your questionnaire short and simple. Keep the reading age low and don’t go beyond four sides or your response rate will fall dramatically. Utilise the expertise you have on your staff to design a questionnaire which is not biased or over complicated.

Provide a return envelope and give parents a letter of explanation requesting their help that assures them of anonymity. This will increase the response rate but will also give parents the confidence to be more honest about perceived problems.

Give a questionnaire to every parent or pupil; this will improve the reliability of your results. If you do only survey a sample make sure you distribute them randomly. Don’t just give questionnaires to those most likely to return them.

Remember to include questions about gender and year group so that your analysis can identify localised differences within the school. You may also wish to investigate your results by ethnicity or, more commonly, whether English is the language usually spoken at home.

Be clear about what you want to track
Make sure that your questionnaire asks about satisfaction and importance. In a good school, there should be a correlation between the two. If you don’t ask about what is important you may find that you are wonderful at something which your stakeholders think is irrelevant. Ask questions which require the respondent to pick priorities from a list but don’t ask them to rank from a list any longer than five or six items.

Think about the things which you will want to track over the long term. Good self-evaluation is most useful if you set up a system which monitors changing attitudes over a long period of time, as perceptions often change slowly.

Before designing your questionnaire have a look at the SEF to see what evidence you will need to generate. Always include a blank section inviting comments. This will be most helpful in explaining why you might have received a low satisfaction score in a certain area.

Considerations for analysing the data
When asking for satisfaction scores use a 5- or 6-point scale, where 1 is very poor and 5 or 6 is very good. Your scores can be easily converted to a percentage later.

Include as few open-ended questions (such as ‘What extra curricular activities would you like to see introduced?’) as you can: the answers will be very diverse and time consuming to analyse.

Once your questionnaires are returned use the number skills of your leadership team to analyse your results. There are IT analysis packages available but, unless you already use them, they have a steep learning curve and putting your results into an Excel spreadsheet is probably the best way forward.

Finally, don’t let criticism downhearten you; there is always a small pocket of unhappy parents in every school. Remember you aren’t measuring the truth, but the perception. Parents may well be wrong about your performance in certain areas, in which case you need to address how you are communicating your achievements. Once you do this your subsequent results will rapidly improve.

Mark Rowell is managing partner of Kirkland Rowell, market leaders in school self-evaluation