Mellow Lane school in Middlesex has addressed this problem with dramatic results. It has ditched parents' evenings for academic review days given over to much longer interviews between parents, pupils and form tutors.
Like many schools, Mellow Lane experienced a familiar drop in attendance at parents' evenings as pupils got older. In Year 7 the usual 90 per cent attendance had dropped to 40 per cent in Year 11.
Headteacher Ron Stafford said: "This was an unacceptable trend. The school has excellent attendance and is oversubscribed. Part of the problem was the changing employment patterns in Hayes. In many homes both partners are in multiple jobs. Therefore, work commitments and availability to attend evenings were a problem."
With the introduction of academic review days, attendance by parents is now 100 per cent in Year 7 although there is still a tail to 75 per cent in Year 11, but many would regard this as a significant improvement.
Academic review days provide parents with the opportunity to discuss in depth their child's performance and to be involved in negotiating and setting learning targets. Mellow Lane has now replaced traditional parents evenings for all but post-16 students.
On review days each tutor sees a maximum of 15 students, with their parents, for a 20-minute interview, based on subject reports. Each subject report includes "the next steps" or targets for the student. Parents are invited into the school half an hour before the review to look at the student's portfolios and to read subject and tutor reports.
At the interview, the reports and "next steps" are discussed and students and parents agree a priority target. This is recorded in the home-school link book and on the tutor report.
Tutorial guidance is at the heart of this system. Homework and exam results provide the basis for discussion, putting the pupil at the centre of the debate. Involving pupils with their parents in the target-setting process greatly increases their motivation.
What is both interesting and innovative about this school's review days is that the school has made the tutor the centre of the process.
"Subject tutors did express some concerns about being disenfranchised," said Mr Stafford, "but they are still very much encouraged to keep contact." Some schools, using a similar model, continue to have traditional parents' evenings to help avoid this feeling of marginalisation.
Knowsley Hey school, Merseyside, which regularly conducts pupil reviews, introduced the system last year to make it possible for parents to be invited.
Leah Beirni, a member of the senior management team, said: "Review days are popular with pupils, parents and staff. Parents' attendance last year was 80 per cent plus. Attendance at traditional parents' evenings is normally 55-65 per cent."
Colin McGreevy, a senior teacher at St John Bosco high school, Liverpool, said: "We have been using review days for one year. Attendance is much better."
At Mellow Lane, the development of this system has been the responsibility of a team of staff working closely with the head. There is a mix of curriculum leaders, pastoral heads, senior managers and representatives of new staff. The school has also established clear lines of responsibility for supporting and monitoring all aspects of the academic review days.
It has also been innovative with its use of time and staffing to achieve review days with all pupils. Those year groups not involved in academic days are taking part in activities which have become an established part of the curriculum, such as work experience, visits and careers education.
Mellow Lane is one of a consortium of five Hillingdon schools involved in a development partnership with the Value Added and Attainment Project at the London Institute of Education. Both Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours, who run the project, believe that such schemes give some power back to the school.
At a conference about the project, the word "honesty" was constantly used. "If you lie to motivate, you can't diagnose," said Mr Spours.
It is also a model firmly based in the school, using its data for curriculum analysis. Setting minimum target grades for students provides a basis for discussion. But this model cannot work unless the school introduces a common reporting format.
Ann Hodgson urges the introduction of "common schemes of work at subject level, as this leads to more consistent actual and estimated grading".
Some teachers feel the same disquiet about the diminution of the role of the subject teacher as that expressed by some staff at Mellow Lane.
However, Ken Spours argues: "Parents' evenings are as much about motivation as any particular subject. Often the things that are discussed are not subject-based but are about a student's organisational skills and attitudes."
He adds: "How many parents are able to discuss in depth all curriculum areas?" The evidence suggests that parents really do prefer it. And, with leaner reporting systems, so will teachers.
SETTING UP academic review days
* Ensure that teachers and students understand the concepts of target minimum grade, estimated grade and actual grade.
* Link the one-to-one tutorial review to the assessment, recording and reporting cycle.
* Build in timetabled periods for one-to-one review and forward planning.
* Involve the parents as actively as possible * Set targets which give clear steps for improvement and then follow them up.
* Set up clear systems for supporting students who are not achieving targets.
* Lead from the front. Such systems need senior management support * Remember, an academic review system takes time to set up.
Devised by Ken Spours and Ann Hodgson The conference referred to in the article was conducted in Manchester by SfE Stands for Education, 1 Portland Square Bristol BS2 8RR (Tel. 0117 9838800).
The next conference on Value-Added and Achievement, led by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours, will be held in June, date and venue to be arranged. All delegates will receive a Value-Added and Achievement resource pack which is available from: Post-16 Education Centre, Institute of Education, 55-59 Gorden Square, London, WC1H 0NT. Tel. 0171 612 6384.