By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education
Teachers might be too cautious to give parents the blunt bad news
Parents' evenings all too often end with parents having no clear idea of how their children are doing at school, claims a survey.
According to a survey of 2,000 primary school parents in the UK, 55% felt parents' evenings did not really tell them how their child was progressing.
The study also found the average time spent with a teacher was 13 minutes.
Developmental psychologist Janine Spencer says parents can leave a hurried meeting feeling "bewildered".
Dr Spencer, a lecturer at Brunel University, says that parents need to plan questions to ask before they go to a meeting with teachers, so that they make use of the time available.
Parents should also make sure they ask the teacher how they could help their child at home, she says.
The survey of parents of children aged 10 and under, carried out for the educational toy company Leapfrog, suggests a majority of parents would like to have more detailed information about their child's performance at school.
But more than three quarters arrive at parents' evenings without having made any preparations or thought about what information they want.
The survey also claims that two thirds of parents have been unable to attend a meeting because of work commitments - and one in three fathers think that going to a parents' evening is a job for their partner.
A majority - 57% - would rather receive an e-mail update about their child's progress and the same number would like to have more frequent informal meetings.
It suggests that too often the experience of parents' evenings can be busy parents arriving for a rushed meeting in which parents are left unsure about their children's school work.
"Parents want to get so much from only a few minutes," she says - and the first couple of minutes can be taken up with saying hello and making small talk.
While parents want a clear overall impression of how well a child is doing, Dr Spencer says it is all too easy for the conversation to be diverted into one particular area - and when the meeting finishes, parents do not feel satisfied they have a clear view of their child's achievement.
Another problem in communicating, she suggests, can be the reluctance of teachers to risk offending parents with too much blunt bad news about their children.
Read some of your comments about this story:
I must say that parent's evenings are not helpful. First teachers do hand you a piece of paper like a recommendation of what to do, but they give you a poor assessment of your children. I interacted with them to get more responses especially in which level my child was in their class, the answer was not straight. What made a difference was to approach the Headmistress, and then we managed to have an appointment with teachers for a session to discuss my child's development. I am not happy. Primary schools should be more responsible, and less complacent with education - we are falling behind the minimal standards of good education in UK.
Ana Penteado, Ashtead, Surrey
As a teacher, it always makes me chuckle that in these kinds of stories parents are described as "busy", whilst the interviews provided by teachers are "hurried" or "rushed", as if parents work jolly hard and lazy teachers are keen to dash off home. But seeing all of the parents from a class of 27 children for 13 minutes each takes nearly six hours on top of the working day, and a secondary school teacher could have more than one class in a year group. I already go over my directed time with my annual hours, and so attend some parents' evenings without pay. More frequent informal meetings would be lovely - but when, and who's paying? That's why we provide extensive written reports and 'phone parents with blunt bad news - there simply isn't time to see everyone in the hours we are given!
Chris Wadley, Portland, Dorset
I used to make every effort to go to my child's parents evening and have at least a couple of questions to ask the teachers. They always fudged the answers, not wanting to tell you any real details. We just wanted to know if our child was keeping up, doing the work correctly, needed any extra assistance at home. Always the answer was convoluted - 'if you want to'; etc. e always came away thinking we had made the effort but the teacher hadn't. Some couldn't even remember who the child was properly until we had a few minutes of conversation - that's the teacher not us wasting time. think you will find it is the teachers that resent having to find out of hours time to talk about everyone. Therefore we have always suggested that these meetings should be broken up across a term - this was always too much for the teachers.
The secondary school my children attend operates a yearly parents evening. You are able to select up to nine teachers to see, with each meeting lasting just five minutes, this is strictly adhered to with the school bell marking the beginning and end of each session. There is no preamble, a quick handshake, then straight into the facts and figures. The teachers are so well prepared that they often answer our questions with without us having to ask. This works incredibly well. I have never felt "bewildered" at the end of a meeting. The school make it absolutely clear that we are able to contact them at any time should we feel the need. We are also kept informed of our child's progress with termly assessments and end of year reports. If one school can operate a successful system then surely they all can.
J Holmes, Lincolnshire
As both a teacher and a parent, I find preparation is key. With my teacher head on, I plan what I want to say about each student so when those parents arrive I trot out appropriate remarks. With my parent head on, I read the pre-parent's evening progress report and discuss it with my daughter, as well as any other issues she may wish raised, so I'm ready when I reach her teachers... I think each 'head' helps the other one do things better, though, which isn't very helpful to parents as for most, their last contact with education was when they were getting their own! Maybe a training session on interpreting progress reviews?
My daughter's parents' "evenings" are always in the afternoon so it's hard to get time off work. We are only allowed 15 minutes with the teacher, and even when we are prepared with questions it is hard to get a real picture of how she is doing. I don't doubt she is being catered for, but it would be nice to feel more involved. Status emails would really help here and could be easily set up, and we could feel more involved each week talking at home about stuff she's doing in school.
With 20 years' experience of parent's evenings under our belt we have seen a lot of changes in how teachers speak to parents. Whereas once you could get some idea of how your child was doing, now any comments are dressed up in modern educational gobbledegook which is obfuscatory in the extreme and obviously aimed at presenting the positive whatever the situation (fitting with our 'no one can fail' educational system) and perhaps protecting the teacher. Regarding the latter, I have heard numerous tales of parents pulling out knives at parents evenings so one can understand but ultimately we all suffer when education is seen as only the responsibility of the school and parents interventions are seen as unwelcome.
As both a teacher/assistant principal and parent, I get to see both sides of the situation. Parents' evenings, as such, often attract those parents the school applauds but who are not necessarily they wish to see as their children are successful. In 30+ years of teaching both in the UK and overseas, this has been the case. Most parent-teacher consultations have a five minute time limit, per parent, imposed thus making communication difficult. In some schools here in Dubai the 'consultation evening' has been dropped and we meet parents at the weekend (Saturdays here as Friday is the holy day of the week). This is better but can cause resentment amongst staff who are being asked to give up part of their weekend. My current school offers email contact, via our website and the student's grades and progress are available through our Engrade system. However, I feel the face to face contact is still very important.
Ian Hicks, Dubai, UAE
I fear that a lack of parents' preparation shows a lack of concern about their child's schooling. Not only do we as parents prepare our questions in advance, but demand to know all their weaknesses, and what we can do at home to help constructively. My wife and I (but mainly my wife!) spends at least an hour every evening supervising homework and testing each child. School is only a relatively short period in one's lifetime, so parents must either make time, or don't make kids!
Neale Horstead, Hässleholm, Sweden