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 I know they are a statutory requirement for all schools, but is this becoming outdated as new technology, including Skype and email (as well as the ubiquitous mobile phone) are making these events nothing more than opportunities to echo what has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