As she glanced across the hall, Sarah Owens might have predicted that the parents’ evening was about to take a turn for the worse. Waiting for the next family to take their seats, she spotted that it was one of her most challenging pupils approaching.
The look of scorn and derision on the child’s face should have said everything Owens needed to know how the pupil felt about being there. It didn’t take long for the situation to escalate.
“This pupil was difficult to teach and reacted badly to being challenged in lessons,” Owens, a former modern languages teacher, now teacher trainer explains. “She arrived with her mother, with her younger brother in tow, and proceeded to hit him and push him off his chair as I tried to conduct the conversation.
“She then began swearing, accused her mother of not caring and called her a waste of space. This was behaviour I would never tolerate in the classroom.”
While this might be an extreme scenario during a routine parents’ evening, the annual meeting with teachers can easily become fraught with problems and lead to conflict.
Over the past three decades there has been a growing expectation in schools that parents should play an active role in their children’s education, and this can take many forms – from organising fundraising activities for boosting school funds, to sitting on the governing body and helping in the classroom by hearing children read aloud.
In most western countries, parents’ evenings are an accepted means of interaction between the school and home. A recent study from Bangladesh, where parents’ evenings are not the norm, looked at whether the education of children living in rural areas improved as a result of regular meetings.
The two-year experiment involved parents meeting with a teacher once a month to discuss their child’s progress and found that children learnt twice as much if their parents were engaged. Researchers found that, by understanding how children learn and by being emotionally invested in the process, parents became more likely to help with schoolwork at home.
Politicians often emphasise the importance of parental involvement in children’s education, going so far as to suggest that the greater the engagement, the higher the potential for academic success. However, there is relatively little research to suggest parents’ evenings have that level of impact or that they are even effective. Nor is there any consensus on how much involvement is too much, or how little is demonstrably detrimental.
In Britain, the Commission on Inequality in Education, led by Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, published a report in 2017 which tried to make some sense of the impact of parental involvement in education, including parents’ evenings. It found that children who had someone in attendance at a parents’ evening had a higher test score at the age of 11 and made better progress between the ages of five and 11 years than those who did not.
However, the Commission could not conclude why this was the case. While it was clear that attendance at parents’ evenings was a strong predictor of test scores at 11, it could not separate this from evidence that showed that parental income and qualifications also had an impact 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 by virtue of their own educational experience.
Dimitra Hartas, associate professor at the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, does not believe that non-attendance at parents’ evenings is indicative of a lack of interest, though they remain an important first step in collaboration between the school and home.
She says that it is the quality of what is discussed at meetings that is important, and not whether parents turn up. “There might be any number of reasons why parents can’t or won’t attend parents’ evenings,” Hartas says. “They 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. 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.
Eileen Prior describes parents’ evenings being “a bit like speed-dating”, where the two parties sit across a table and talk for five or ten minutes, before one of them stands up and moves on.
“These events can be a daunting and uncomfortable for parents whose own experience of school might have been difficult,” she says. “Some undoubtedly enjoy parents’ evenings as they’re socially equipped to deal with the environment and will go prepared with questions and concerns.
“But others will feel overwhelmed because they lack confidence themselves or feel like they don’t have anything to bring to the table or add to the discussion.”
Prior, who is executive director of the Scottish-based charity Connect, which is dedicated to improving home-school collaboration, recalls a parents’ evening to discuss her son as an example of what is wrong with the system.
“One of his teachers said that his performance would be better if he wasn’t constantly absent,” she said. “It turned out she was referring to days when he was representing the school at rugby. It felt like she was being precious about her subject while failing to consider his wider personal development.”
Prior believes that schools have got themselves in a rut over parents’ evenings because “this is what we have always done, and not because they are particularly effective”.
She believes teachers should be using the time to find out more about the child from the parents’ perspective, and seeking insights into the 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 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,” Prior says.
“They might, for example, want to find out how sociable their son or daughter is; whether they get on with other children and have lots of friends; whether they are happy, engage in lessons and contribute to class discussion.
“Attainment is often well down the list of things that they want to know about, though it obviously becomes more important as they move through school. Mainly, they want to know that their child is happy.”
At Stanley Park High School, in the south London borough of Sutton, 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. The school’s position is unusual and a response to its local circumstances.
Surrounded by grammar schools, which admit children based on their scores in a rigorous and highly competitive examination at the age of 11, Stanley Park had set about innovating its curriculum delivery to try to raise standards among its own students. Many of them felt second best for not gaining a place in grammar school.
Those innovations included reviewing how staff interacted with families. David Taylor, the headteacher, says that at the time only about half of families were attending parents’ evenings and they had become “pointless”.
“No matter where you put them in the school year, or on what date or time, parents said they were too early or too late, or that they knew all about their child already,” he says. “They felt the information they were getting was useless.
“The approach wasn’t fit for purpose and was outdated. It wasn’t an effective means of showing learning to parents.”
Students in Years 7 and 8 (12 and 13-year-olds) 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,” Taylor explains. “It might be something they’re 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. If the child is showing them a piece of work, we ask them not to criticise their presentation 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 turnout generally has risen to well over 90 per cent, compared with the 50 per cent who came to the old-style parents’ evenings.
“Often the student-led conferences are very moving because you might have a child with autism and limited communication telling their parents what they’ve been doing or exhibiting their work through art, acting or music,” Taylor says. “It is very powerful because the parents gain an understanding of what their children are learning, and this helps to engage them.”
Stanley Park remains unusual. The overwhelming majority of schools continue to persevere with traditional parents’ evenings. Unless they become more innovative and inventive, it looks likely they will continue to blind parents with statistics and data that many will find difficult to understand.
The author is an education journalist and co-author of Meet the Parents – How Schools Can Work Effectively with Parents to Support Children’s Learning.