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Better in front of the children?

Do pupils really want to go to parents' evenings or do they just want to be asked? Barbara Walker opens this research round-up.

Should secondary pupils attend parents' evenings? Most pupils think they should be invited and those who are excluded often feel disenfranchised and resentful.

One girl I interviewed during my study of four Norfolk secondary schools said that if pupils did not attend it was "an unfair trial; you're not able to provide your own defence". Another felt that "if people are talking about you, you want to be there. I want to have my argument." And a boy said: "They're the worst evenings of my life. It's three people who're older than you and more articulate than you talking about your future when you're not there. How would you like it?" Yet when their presence was encouraged they could be less enthusiastic. "You know how you've done, don't you? You don't need to come into school. You're here for goodness knows how many hours a day anyhow." Pupils didn't like having their shortcomings discussed. They didn't want to see their parents upset. Even high-flyers could be embarrassed by praise. Many pupils were disconcerted when parents and schools came into contact. They were caught between perceptions of them as childrenpupils, and their perceptions of themselves as maturing adults.

Some pupils felt outnumbered and overwhelmed by the event, that the adults were ganging up on them. Sometimes it could all be too much. I met a Year 8 pupil wandering alone at a parents' evening. "My mum was being interviewed, " he said, "and I was shaking so I came away." Some of his classmates, however, were obviously enjoying showing how at home they were in the school. They were busy marshalling their parents through the evening: "Dad, Dad! Mr S is free, Mr S!" and "Who're you looking for, Mum - over there!" Yet if the power balance of the evening feels unequal to parents, it can seem even more so for pupils. On an evening for parents of more senior pupils at the same school I came across a self-possessed young lady stroking a dog in a corridor. "I'm looking after the dog while my mother goes round," she said. "I'd rather be with the dog. Teachers are better if you aren't there . . . It's not really about what you want - it's what the teachers want."

Some pupils said that they would appreciate an opportunity to talk to teachers individually on a formal basis similar to a parents' evening. Subject teachers, they said, rarely had time to talk. And teachers at one school reported that sixth-formers were beginning to do just that. Some were attending parents' evenings alone.

Parents' views varied from, "We've always insisted that the children come. I wouldn't want to discuss the child with the teacher without them being present," to "I don't think it's right to talk about him with him sitting there, and he wasn't keen to come so I didn't press him".

So parents, too, are divided. A father said that his children would "dive in - they wouldn't have the patience to hear the teacher out". But one mother told me she had dragged her daughter along as she felt it was time she took more responsibility for her own behaviour. And the parents of a disgruntled boy said that it had been good for him to hear the teachers' opinions.

There are, of course, complicated issues of confidentiality. These aspects concerned teachers, but one mother told me that she and her husband always spent the drive home discussing how much of the evening to pass on to their sons.

Teachers said that a pupil's presence could be inhibiting if "a quiet word" with a parent was necessary concerning problems such as lack of confidence or personal hygiene. Although one experienced teacher said that this was not difficult. "I'd just say, 'Can you wait over there, dear, while I have a quick word with your mum?'" Some teachers thought that they owed parents an honest opinion of a pupil's chances of success in a subject "so that they don't expect too much". Yet they would be reluctant to voice this in front of a weak student whom they were trying to bolster.

Schools, parents and the pupils themselves agreed that they should be encouraged to take responsibility for themselves, but there were problems as to how to put this into practice at parents' evenings.

In one school pupils were rarely seen at such events. At another, although I was told that pupils were welcome, they seemed little in evidence. A group who were acting as ushers for the evening said: "They only want parents here. " At a third school, where a fair proportion of pupils were accompanying their parents, one boy still thought he was unwelcome. Mrs B said: "You can come if you have to, but it's your parents who speak to the teachers. You have to wait outside the classroom."

Perhaps it is understandable that some schools might indulge in subtle discouragement. Apart from the difficulties mentioned above, complicated three-way interviews are likely to lengthen an event that teachers already find exhausting. And, as one teacher said: "It's nice to have a chat with parents on your own."

Barbara Walker is a research associate at the centre for applied research in education, University of East Anglia.

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