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 I know they are a statutory requirement for all schools, but is this becoming outdated as new technology, including Skype and email (as well as the ubiquitous mobile phone) are making these events nothing more than opportunities to echo what has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.

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9 thoughts on “What is the point of parents’ evenings?

  1. daibarnes July 15, 2015 / 7:39 am

    This raises an interesting question, David. I think you identify clear weaknesses in parent evenings that many teachers will identify with, however, there are some strengths you don’t mention. For example, the feedback I get from some parents at every event of this sort reaffirms my work: ‘it’s the subject he talks about most at home’ or ‘thank you for engaging my child, they really enjoy your lessons’. Similarly, meeting the parents of a pupil can help me contextualise their learning, or maybe just their personality, helping me wash away some assumptions I might have made. Having said that, these things could be communicated if other channels – like those you identify – were encouraged and nurtured. One thing that might not be replaceable is the volume of contact in a relatively short space of time. I’d be interested to hear/read about a school that has forged a new model for these communique. It might especially suit a boarding school, where parents are flying in for the weekend to meet teachers, but then they’re also coming to spend some time with their children.

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    • drdavidajames July 15, 2015 / 7:55 am

      I accept those points Dai, and it is hugely encouraging to hear positive support from parents face to face (it made a big difference to me when I was a new teacher). I know of one state school that has an evening for parents of children who are causing them most concern. This seems sensible to me; I have often wondered about whether the parents who have a child destined for straight A*s needs as much time with teachers as the child who is on the C/D borderline (or much worse).

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  2. Holly July 15, 2015 / 8:36 pm

    I am a secondary teacher and enjoy parents’ evenings, although I do think your ideas for the improvement of parents’ evenings are wonderful, such as a targeted evening for the most able and bringing in external speakers; the idea of making parents check off a list of “things to do before you are allowed to attend” is also genius!
    I work abroad in a “British” school and am required to write long, detailed reports in English which most of the parents cannot understand or do not have the energy to decipher. Often they are scared to contact the school via e-mail or telephone because they don’t speak English (or don’t believe they speak it well enough). However, at parents’ evening, I can speak to them in their native tongue and very quickly and effectively both they and I can understand one another and decide how to support the student, (i.e. they want me to e-mail them a reading list, I want them to increase their supervision of homework, etc.)
    All in all I prefer parents’ evenings enormously to writing reports and to e-mailing parents; I value the opportunity to meet parents face to face, and I am afraid I am rather judgemental about parents who never attend parents’ evenings despite having received messages of concern about their child’s effort or achievement or attitude from various teachers. (Of course, I understand about time constraints; I’m talking about parents who never come in to speak to teachers, at any time. As you say, we do make ourselves available regularly in addition to the timetabled parents’ evenings.)

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    • drdavidajames July 15, 2015 / 9:04 pm

      Thank you Holly. To be honest, I hadn’t considered your situation, and the need to talk to parents, literally, in a language they understand. That’s me being insular and UK-focused. I certainly take your point about reports: these, too, seem to be the sort of communication with parents that have carried on, regardless, because we’ve always had them. I was going to write another blog on ‘What’s the point of reports?’, and there could be a postscript there along the lines of ‘What’s the point of writing reports in the same term as a parents’ evening?’ Many thanks for your contribution. I’m glad you found the blog interesting.

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  3. jillberry102 July 19, 2015 / 6:00 pm

    Thanks for making me think, David.

    I’ve attended so many parents’ evenings over the years – as a classroom teacher, a HoD, Head of Sixth, Deputy Head and Head. I’ve usually found them positive and productive and in fact, a good use of the time. As Dai says, sometimes you learn things you weren’t aware of, or you get positive reinforcement of things you suspected. I think the relationship-building element is key – even if you only have a few minutes with each parent, that face-to-face contact is really important – electronic and paper communication, though valuable, isn’t the same.

    And parents’ evenings which pupils attend (and I believe they always should) are useful opportunities to communicate something to both child and parent simultaneously. This really helps the clarity of communication, especially when parents’ perceptions of what’s going on in school can be filtered through the child/adolescent frequently distorting perspective! Parents’ evenings offer schools the opportunity to be warm and welcoming but also show their high expectations and standards, with the child at the centre. It’s a good illustration of the partnership which should be at work, for the sake of their son/daughter.

    I’d hate the idea of seeing only the parents of students causing concern, and/or the stars. In my view, those are the pupils who dominate our time and attention, for various reasons, throughout the year. Most pupils are in between, of course, and sometimes they risk being grey and not clearly visible. They need to have their moment!

    Thanks again for the post.

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    • drdavidajames July 19, 2015 / 6:47 pm

      Thank you Jill. I agree with all this and, ideally, such exchanges would characterise all Parents’ Evenings. However, the reality is, as I say in my post, often very different. I certainly wouldn’t want to get rid of Parents’ Evening, but what I would like to explore is how they can be made more mutually rewarding for teachers and parents. I also favour students being present, but it doesn’t seem a good model to allow every child, regardless of achievement, ability and behaviour, the same amount of time: priorities should be given to those you need really need to talk to.

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      • jillberry102 July 19, 2015 / 8:02 pm

        Thanks, David. Interestingly, in my first school we had a system whereby if you taught a lot in a year group you selected which pupils & parents you felt you most needed to see. The school then arranged longer appointments with these, rather than shorter appointments with everybody. This was in the early 80s! The school was ahead of its time, I think. (Computer generated appointments system too)

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  4. Dave t September 13, 2015 / 8:03 pm

    Our problem is that the SLT refuse point blank to let us communicate direct to parents.We cannot email, phone or write even if it is to send good tidings home! Thus parents’ evening 5 minutes is the only time we can communicate with them! And a date in mid winter months before the prelims or even real exams is no use to anyone.

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