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Like King's Cross on the dole

Parents' evenings are often bleak and uninformative, reports David Budge

Parents' evenings are never the high point of a teacher's school year. But new research suggests that parents also see them as a depressing cross between "a social security office, a doctor's surgery and King's Cross station".

Many parents believe consultation evenings are organised for the convenience of teachers and offer little opportunity for meaningful or private discussion. And they are no more flattering about school reports on their children's progress, which are generally seen as impersonal, bland, or disingenuous. One parent said: "When they're not doing well I think it's actually better to say that they're not doing well, as opposed to fudging the issue."

The researchers who conducted the 183-school survey, Alison Clark and Sally Power of Bristol University, say legislation to make schools more accountable to parents has not had the desired effects.

But their study suggests that parents of grammar school pupils have less cause for complaint than most. Some 15 per cent of the grammar schools surveyed issued termly reports, 62 per cent reported twice a year and the remaining 23 per cent annually. The equivalent percentages for comprehensives were 12, 43 and 45, and secondary moderns reported even less frequently: 58 per cent twice a year and 42 per cent annually.

"If home-school reports are to become an effective mechanism for raising school achievement, then it might be more appropriate if these students who are not deemed academically able receive reports at least as often as their counterparts in selective schools," the study says.

But unfortunately parents' evenings follow a similar pattern. Attendance at parents' evenings fell away in all the schools surveyed as pupils passed through the secondary years.

The drop was less dramatic in grammar schools, however, where the average attendance was 95 per cent in Year 7 and 80 per cent in Year 11. By contrast, one inner-city comprehensive saw attendance slump from 85 per cent to 30 per cent. "This suggests a worrying level of disenchantment and disenfranchisement," the researchers say. "Some of those (parents) not attending will be hampered by practical difficulties such as lack of transport and others will be put off by what is for many a very unrewarding experience. "

One parent told the researchers: "I felt almost beaten up. We were hit by all these negatives."

The right to know: parents and school reports, by Alison Clark and Sally Power, Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol. Funding for the research was provided by the Nuffield Foundation and the Research and Information on State Education Trust.

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