Parents feel that primary school parents' evenings are more satisfactory. They are organised better and primary teachers have a fuller knowledge of the child.
Secondary school evenings are significantly different, judging by my study of four Norfolk secondary schools. Parents know that these events involve long hours for teachers, and sympathise with them. But they feel that the five or 10 minutes allotted is not enough for any meaningful discussion.
The inevitable breakdown of appointments systems, extended queuing and minimal privacy make matters worse. Yet parents are reluctant to make further individual appointments to discuss an issue.
Written reports often fail to tell parents how well their child is performing. "She got a B. Is that good?" They hope that parents' evenings will help, and give a useful picture of possible futures, but frequently find that "it didn't tell us anything we didn't already know".
They also hope to hear an outside view on increasingly autonomous, and often uninformative, offspring. Parents want "to get a full picture", while acknowledging that the picture can be painful. And they wish to "make the case" for their child, to stop them "falling through the net".
Parents perceive that they are being judged when they meet teachers. They feel the impression they make could reflect upon their child's treatment at school. A common reason cited for attendance is that it gives an opportunity to show their concern. "How can I expect teachers to be interested in my child if I haven't shown interest myself?" On the whole, parents are anxious and unsure how they should act, and are often reluctant to disagree with teachers. They say that they only begin to use the evenings properly by the second or third child. Consequently, they feel guilty about having "short-changed" older children.
Such feelings of unease appear to be universal, regardless of the parents' social class or educational attainment. Even parents who are teachers are not immune. "I always used to come home and cry," said one teacher-mother, recalling interviews concerning her eldest son. He has just qualified as a doctor.
Perhaps surprisingly, staff at the four schools say the majority of parents do attend parents' evenings. And pupils indicated that "absent parents" are often uninformed rather than uninterested. As one girl said: "I never tell my mum about parents' evenings. I don't want her to be upset."
So why do parents keep attending? The over-riding answer seems to be that it allows them to put faces to teachers' names. "You also get to know what your child's teacher is like as a person. You can tell an awful lot by the way they talk about your child."
Understandably, when faced with the eternal question, "How's she doing?" most teachers feel obliged to provide details of academic standards, course requirements, homework and behaviour. But it seems that many parents would appreciate being asked: "And what do you think?" There appears to be a mismatch of views as to the purpose of parents' evenings. Teachers see themselves as information-givers. Yet the view that "I'm here for the parents, to answer their questions" directly conflicts with a father's statement that "it's a teacher's evening". Parents feel the interviews are one-way information conduits. And there is an inherent power imbalance. Teachers are trained professionals; parents feel their tacit knowledge is undervalued.
An example of the mismatch is the timing of parents' evenings. Many schools have already had their "How's he settling in?" evening for parents of first-year pupils. This is an important contact point for parents, but teachers often feel it is too early in the year to know the children. For other year groups, the parents' evening frequently takes place towards the end of the summer term. This suits teachers who want to report on the work done during the year. But parents say that this is too late for their comments to be acted upon. It seems teachers are happy to report on the past, while parents want to speculate on the future.
Perhaps it is time for a major rethink on the purpose of parents' evenings. Shouldn't we consider how best to maximise the time and effort involved to the greater benefit of all concerned?
Barbara Walker is a research associate at the Centre for Applied Research, University of East Anglia.