Parents’ evenings: What should be on the agenda?

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:

In the first of three articles examining parental engagement, Dorothy Lepkowska looks at parents’ evenings and asks if there is a mismatch between what teachers want to discuss and what parents want to know...

Glancing across the hall, Sarah Owens’ parents’ evening was about to take a turn for the worse. As she waited for the next family to take their seats, she spotted that it was one of her most challenging pupils approaching.

“The girl was difficult to teach and reacted badly to being challenged in lessons,” Ms Owens, a former modern languages teacher, now teacher trainer explained. “She arrived with her mother and younger brother and pushed him off his chair as I tried to conduct the conversation.

“She also swore and accused her mother of not caring. This was behaviour I would never tolerate in the classroom.”

While this might be an extreme scenario, this annual meeting can be difficult and fall below expectations on both sides of the table.

The legal requirement in the UK for schools to report back to parents on their children’s academic progress provides at least one opportunity a year for a discussion, and parents’ evenings have become a key means of improving engagement. However, there is relatively little research in the UK to show that parents’ evenings have a positive impact.

The 2017 Commission on Inequality in Education found that children whose parents attended parents’ evenings had a higher test score at the age of 11 and made better progress between the ages of five and 11 than those who did not (Clegg et al, 2017).

However, the Commission could not conclude why this was the case. While attendance at parents’ evenings was a strong predictor of test scores at 11, it could not separate this from the impact that parental income and qualifications also had on a child’s academic performance. In other words, parents who turned up to meetings were already more likely to be invested in their child’s learning.

Dimitra Hartas, associate professor at the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, believes it is the quality of what is discussed at meetings that is important rather than attendance.

“Parents may have an investment in their child’s education in the form of cultural activities and conversations that go beyond what happens in the classroom,” she said. “But what happens at school is what teachers want to discuss.”

Regardless of social, economic and cultural factors affecting attendance, most schools continue with this annual ritual because nothing better has been found to replace parents’ evenings.

Stanley Park High School, in south London, has adopted a different approach – one which could work at primary level too. Parents’ evenings have been scrapped in their conventional form, in favour of “student-led conferences” where pupils present work to their parents under the supervision of a teacher.

Surrounded by grammar schools, Stanley Park had to change how staff interacted with families some years ago at a time when results were poor. David Taylor, the headteacher, said that, at the time, only about half of families were attending parents’ evenings and they had become “pointless” and not “an effective means of showing learning to parents.”

Students in years 7 and 8 are now at the centre of this process: “They will plan in advance with their tutor what they want to talk about and what pieces of work they want to show,” Mr Taylor explained. “It might be something they are particularly proud of, or it might be their worst piece of work, or something they found challenging.

“The pupils have half an hour to present their work, and we also explain to the parents how they should conduct themselves during the conference. We ask them not to criticise but suggest questions they might want to ask. The teacher’s role is to intervene, prompt and remind if something is not being represented. The student-led conference is recorded on video, so the students can later reflect on their presentation skills.”

While a small number of parents continue to be reluctant to attend the conferences for their own reasons, the turn-out generally has risen to well more than 90 per cent.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish-based charity, Connect, dedicated to improved home-school collaboration, believes parents’ evenings can be “daunting and uncomfortable” for those whose own experience of school was lacking.

She believes schools persist with the meetings because “this is what we have always done”. Ms Prior says teachers should be using the time to find out more about the child, and seeking insights into family life and circumstances, all of which can have an impact on achievement – rather than reporting results and data.

And therein lies the problem. There is a mismatch between what teachers want to discuss and what parents want to know.

“If you ask parents what they want from a parents’ evening it is often to find out about the social and emotional aspects of their child’s development in the context of the learning process,” Ms Prior added. “Mainly, they want to know that their child is happy.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist and co-author of Meet the Parents.

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