What is the point of parents’ evenings?

Last week I went to my son’s parents evening at the local school.

It followed a traditional pattern: appointments had been made with teachers who were (in an inversion of the usual set up) sitting in one room behind a load of desks. Emotions, ranging from eagerness, exhaustion and trepidation, seemed to flit across their faces as parents approached them. I have been in their shoes more times than I care to remember, waiting for the parents of children I teach ask questions about the progress they are making, wondering if the difficult boy will have equally difficult parents…

The teachers I spoke to were of course charming: they gave a quick appraisal of my son’s progress and told us where (and how) he could improve. As any teacher will tell you, it’s an odd feeling being the other side of the desk, listening intently to every word uttered. I try to play ‘spot the euphemism’, those words and phrases used by teachers to signal certain issues (for example, ‘she should take more responsibility for her own learning’ roughly translates as she’s feckless and lazy). You can find others here. But I was lucky: I got to spend about four minutes with my son’s maths teacher because I was early: she had two Year 7 classes to see which meant, in reality, trying to talk to the parents of about 60 children before the end of the evening. Quite soon a long a restless queue had begun to form in front of her desk as each parent tried to stretch out their allotted time; trying to convey something meaningful under such circumstances is often an impossible and, some would say, futile task.

What are parents’ evenings ‘for’ nowadays? I know they are a statutory requirement for all schools, but is this becoming outdated as new technology, including Skype and email (as well as the ubiquitous mobile phone) are making these events nothing more than opportunities to echo what has already been said several times before? Do parents get better ‘feedback’ from a teacher via an email, or a ‘phone call, composed at a time that is convenient (and often less stressful) for the teacher? In independent schools (where I work) are they part of a marketing strategy?

My parents only saw my teachers once a year, and if they saw them more than that it meant I was in trouble. We had one set of reports per term, all hand written (in tiny boxes) and they were often remarkably frank in their assessment of my ‘progress’ (‘James shows absolutely no interest in this subject and should give it up at the earliest opportunity’ was a fairly typical missive from one particular department).

I don’t want to go back to that. However, surely we should always ask if we should continue with something just because it has always been done in a certain way. I now get emailed about four times a week by my son’s school, ranging from new locker arrangements to a new menu (there are also emails about progress reports). Additionally, I have the email address for each teacher, and I am encouraged to contact them about any concerns I might have; replies are usually swift and constructive. If I wanted to talk to them face-to-face I could arrange a time to meet with them. In other words, the old barriers between school and home have long since dissolved; information from tutors, heads of year, heads of departments and teachers regularly is shared regularly with parents.

If we agree that parents’ evenings are not perfect, how could we change them? Perhaps we should ask some questions. Firstly, how much training do new teachers have in dealing with (sometimes very difficult) parents? On my PGCE I received none, and a quick check with teachers I know found a huge range in experiences ranging from very little, to shadowing a teacher after joining a school, to a full and constructive programme of preparation. Those soft skills – of moving people on swiftly and without causing offence – can be taught. Secondly, how prepared should parents be? Should schools require them to say why they feel a meeting is necessary? Parents could complete a number of questions about their child’s education (perhaps beginning with ‘Have you read our latest report on your son/daughter?) If they answer each one, and they still feel they want to come to meet teachers, they have to give a specific reason for attending. In that way, the teacher will be better prepared for the conversation and it will be more rewarding because of this.

And what about the nature of the evenings themselves? Should parents only be allowed to see a maximum of six teachers, booked online in advance? Should this go further and open up evenings to parents of children who are causing the school most difficulties? Should these evenings be for parents of pupils with specific requirements (such as the very able) so that external speakers, and teachers, can talk to them about their own particular needs? Such meetings would allow for much more focused conversations between staff, parents, and pupils.

Perhaps we also need to change behaviours too: a lot of parents feel, rightly or wrongly, that should they not attend an evening they are ‘bad parents’. But surely what schools should be promoting is an on-going level of support and engagement throughout the year, which reinforces the aspirations the school has for its pupils. Parents don’t need to spend three minutes face-to-face if, for the other 364 days of the year, they have worked with the school in ensuring the progress being made by their child is as informed as it possibly can be. Ideally, parents’ evenings should contain no surprises and when that happens they might start to become redundant because the staff, the students, and the parents are in regular contact, and have a mutual respect and sense of trust in each other’s abilities to work in the interests of the child.

A textbook blog post

I wrote a blog for the TES on textbooks. 

I’ve posted it here as well:

Teacher-made resources have an important role to play, writes one deputy head, but textbooks are essential too

At the recent Education Reform Summit, Richard Culatta, director of educational technology at the US Department of Education announced that textbooks were “out of date the second they get printed”. 

For those of us involved in education, these grand statements, usually coming from tech evangelists such as Culatta, are familiar. But they should not go unchallenged because the end result of such thinking could be costly to schools (in financial terms) and also damaging to the academic progress of our students.

First of all, I must declare some self-interest: I have written textbooks for A-level, IB, GCSE and key stage 3. I begin work on my fifth book (a study guide to An Inspector Calls) next month.

Culatta argued that ‘open resources’, often written collaboratively and capable of being constantly revised in real time, were intrinsically superior to textbooks. For him, schools paying for textbooks “might as well just take the money and throw it away”. For all those teachers who have seen their schools spend endless funds at new technology, only to see it collect dust in store cupboards, such a statement will be met some sense of irony. Meanwhile, the trusty textbooks, well-thumbed, and probably annotated too, are recycled year after year by teachers who like and value them. 

Textbooks have a rigour that teacher-generated resources sometimes lack. To give you an example, it took two years for me to write a textbook for Cambridge University Press on English literature, and it has taken me the best part of a year to complete a study guide on Ian McEwan.  

During this process, I read as much as I could about the specifications, and the authors; furthermore, each word written is questioned at every stage, being edited, sub-edited, proofed, and reviewed. It is an exhausting process, but as I argue here, an inherently healthy one for author and (I hope) the students who use them.  

There are other advantages of textbooks over technology: they don’t crash, they are more durable in different contexts (try risking 30 iPads in a chemistry lab with a bunch of Year 7 students), and, crucially, they are quicker and safer to use (no firewalls, no checking that the students have gone off-task when they go online). It is also a fallacy to say that because they are published on boring old paper they are immediately redundant: I don’t think the main facts of the Second World War need to be changed every ten minutes. Textbooks endure because they remain relevant.

But I dislike orthodoxies. I use online resources from the TES regularly, and they are very good; they have provided a huge range of ideas on numerous occasions. I also work collaboratively with students and teachers using online platforms such as Google Docs. Again, they bring an extra dimension to my planning and teaching. But I reject the ‘solutionism’ that Calutta and others like him think will act as a silver bullet for all school problems. And as soon as they start talking about “personalised learning for all”, I know they don’t work in schools, and have no real experience of teaching subjects with public exams and targets to meet, and all within a limited budget.

Long after the sleek, pricey iPads are stacked up next to the once-indispensable overhead projectors, textbooks will still be being used, and will still be helping students develop a deep and lasting love of their subjects.

Summit up: a reflection on the Education Reform Summit

We are now one year PMG (Post- Michael Gove). And exactly 364 days ago I attended a rather excellent two day event run by the Education Foundation’s, Ty Goddard and Ian Fordham. The first day involved canapés and drinks (and Boris); but on the second day, at the Emmanuel Centre (a kicked can’s distance down the road from the Department for Education), we gathered to listen to MG. He was in a reflective mood, and his speech contained some defiance, as well as hope about the future. Of course, by then he knew his fate, and the tone of his speech reflected this.

If a week is a long time in politics a year is, er, even longer. In the world of education a lot has change, but much remains the same. Most obviously we have a new SoS, a majority Conservative government, and an agenda that is still reformist. But what has most obviously altered is the relationship between the Department and schools. Things are calmer, less confrontational. Which raises the question: do we need Summits, or should it be something, well, quieter, such as a Symposium, or just a Meeting with biscuits? I realise that as one of the people behind an Education Festival, loud banners that proclaim their own significance are not exactly something I’m averse to.

But this Summit did feel necessary. Typically, for such seasoned practitioners as Goddard and Fordham the programme is both broad but focused; the names are familiar but have important and interesting things to say. In place of MG we have NG (Nick Gibb). He talked about grit, character, resilience and textbooks which will help you find the right answer…you know, all the things Tristram Hunt will need over the next five years. He then dropped the C word (‘Coasting’) into the room and, being a teacher with an antennae that can detect 37 gradations of indifference, I felt the air quiver a little. Sean Harford, from Ofsted, must have picked up on it too because he spent much of his time discussing ‘coastingness’, as if it had morphed into an actual thing. I think the audience felt this was going just a little too far.

Richard Culatta jumped on stage with the boundless enthusiasm that comes from someone who is both American and works in technology. We were dazzled with stuff that most of us knew, and agreed with, but couldn’t ‘scale’ (a word I obviously have to use much more if I’m to get ahead in the Brave New World of edutech). I have sat through a lot of presentations on tech and much of what is said is outwardly persuasive but impossible to ‘scale’ (tick) in schools with limited resources. For instance, the idea that ‘individualised learning’, using new technology, to construct bespoke courses for all students…how is that possible, ore even desirable? Haven’t advocates of such a ‘revolution’ not heard of public exams (and lesson plans), not to mention Ofsted?

And then there was the now-obligatory dig at textbooks, claiming that resources written collaboratively online are somehow, intrinsically, superior. Why? Where’s the evidence? By then Nick Gibb had left the building, which was a shame as I’m sure there’d have been some interesting exchanges, so I asked a question instead. His answer was evasive and unsubstantial, but he’d probably see it differently. Out of such presentations no doubt things that work will leak into mainstream education, much as in the same way that the preposterous costumes on the catwalks of Paris eventually find their way into the Romford Marks and Spencer. But it will take time.

Thankfully, Ty Goddard then spoke. This man knows his stuff, reminding us of essential reports that need to be revisited. He also said it with something which is missing too often from educational debate: passion. This was a reasoned, perceptive speech that perfectly captured the current climate of reform in schools. His claims were intelligently aligned with key evidence that has to underpin achievable reform. It was a speech that brought together idealism and pragmatism and it changed the atmosphere in the room from one of patient listening to engagement. And the next speaker, Tristram Hunt, continued this.

Hunt spoke with more freedom, and greater clarity, than I have heard him before. Why is this? Why does Opposition, or being out of office, almost invariably liberate politicians? Is the golden cage of power, or the promise of office, so constraining and dazzling that it renders even very intelligent people such as Hunt timid? His talk was steeped in knowledge, wide in scope, ambitious in intent. He clearly cares very much about teaching and learning, and his anecdotes about the schools he had visited rang true (being both uplifting and depressing at the same time). Hunt still strikes one as a rather donnish figure, perhaps more comfortable in an Oxford quad than a corridor in a state school in Lewisham, and this hint of distance was reiterated when he decided not to take questions, but left soon after his speech. Labour need to engage with its audience again, at events like this, and the best way of doing that is through conversation.

And then there were the panels. Putting panels together is a craft, and much depends on getting the right person to chair. These were very focused but, at 30 minutes each (which works out at about ten acronyms per minute) felt overly compressed. Credit to those who contributed that they kept us interested both pre- and post- lunch.

And then Andreas Schleicher talked about the work he oversees as Director for Education and Skills at the OECD. Schleicher is worth the price of admission alone (admittedly, it was free). This man knows his stuff, and for some teachers that’s unsettling. This was a convincing, informative presentation which conveyed a lot of information in very little time. Such is Andreas’s delivery style it is easy to let some rather damning information to pass by (for example, that a lot of teachers in the UK are, academically, average; obviously he didn’t mean you, dear reader, just that schmuck down the corridor). But if we do have a lot of average teachers who have a less-than-secure knowledge of their subject the consequences for our students, and the country, are clear.

A year on, then, we clearly do need educational reform summits (and Festivals). Yes, the atmosphere has changed over twelve months: there more agreement (although some might say this is resignation). Schleicher was right to say that ‘without data you are just another person with an opinion’, but that doesn’t mean that opinions without data don’t matter. What the Education Reform Summit clearly proved is that such events can shape future debate because they bring a diverse range of people together to listen, and to establish common ground. It felt like another beginning, rather than the end of the Govean revolution. I look forward to continuing the debate next year.

AS: you like it?

New A levels were back in the news again this week (to be honest, A levels are rarely out of the news and can even grab headlines when Europe’s economy seems to be heading, literally, south).

This time it was Richard Harman, the highly-respected Head of Uppingham School and Chairman of HMC (the body that represents 269 independent schools) issuing warnings that schools are not prepared for the changes that are going to hit us in September. You can read the full press release here.

I agree with much that Harman says: GCSE reform should have come before A level, and the pace of change, together with the phased introductions (which means that a lot of schools will have a mixed economy) is regrettable (but, for political reasons, probably understandable).

But I don’t agree with this comment:

The A level changes mean that we have got to re-train ourselves to teach linearity rather than modularity and it has got to be done over time and at different paces for different subjects. There is a danger that is quite confusing for parents, particularly, and pupils

Firstly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with re-training ourselves to teach in a different way, and to acquire new skills. Teachers do this all the time (and expect their students to do it daily), and in doing so we can ensure that whatever confusion there might be is sorted out in departmental meetings before it reaches the classroom and parents’ evenings.

Much of the debate seems framed with negative discussions about disruption, confusion, and inaccurate predicated grades. But not much is being said about the positives of linearity (Martin Robinson’s characteristically clear-sighted view of things is one of the exceptions). Linearity – which will see summative examinations at the end of the two-year course – will test students in a way that AS modules did not: the aim, for the previous Secretary of State, was to embed deep learning, rather than promote the ‘learn it and dump it’ approach that AS, at its worst, promoted. I have dealt with students who knew exactly what they needed to get in their UMS marks to secure an A grade, and they didn’t need to do much at all. AS levels promoted spoon feeding and a culture of dependancy (for both school and student).

And a lot of schools were happy with this: they liked the certainty that the AS level gave them, and they loved all the top grades that A2 delivered on the back of them. Prescriptive teaching, teaching to the test, ‘gaming the system’, these happened in schools all the time, but the pressure to get those children the highest possible grades, so that they got into good universities (and league table rankings were improved upon) was immense. AS and A2 made that easier, and now they’re gone (or going) and schools are worried.

Should they be? I don’t think so. Firstly, I think good teachers will enjoy the new A level because it will gain them several weeks teaching time; secondly, it will allow them greater freedom to teach challenging material which will really stretch their students. Students will adapt, as they always do, and they will quickly understand the new ‘rhythms’ of the school day, and that new pace might encourage a new sense of purpose. Thirdly, plenty of teachers are happy teaching IB and Pre-U (alongside or instead of A level), and these qualifications are linear (albeit with coursework components). Schools cope, and many flourish, with linear qualifications.

If the new A level frees up time in the school calendar, and takes away the re-sit culture that has been so damaging to intellectual curiosity (and the pleasure of just learning stuff for its own sake) then I’m all for it. I suspect that the previous Secretary of State for Education knew he had to be in a hurry, and had to get things done before he was done for (and he was right). It is fashionable for schools to tell their students that they need to have more character, and grit; perhaps, as institutions, they need to embody such qualities themselves rather more. New A level is here. Let’s get on with it.