The collaborative home-school partnerships promoted by successive governments may be hard to achieve, judging by our recent study of parent-teacher consultations in secondary schools.
Teachers diagnosed pupils' strengths and weaknesses, and expected parents to agree with their expert opinion. Students had almost no say in the proceedings. However, teachers were also on trial. The spectre of blame and accountability haunted all the parties in these brief encounters, including the (often absent) student.
Our research took place in five secondary schools. In all, we made 184 recordings of parent-teacher consultations, and later interviewed a selection of parents, teachers and students about the experience. The findings were surprisingly consistent.
Teachers usually spoke first, often at length, giving their diagnosis of students' strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes a prognosis of future examination performance or general success in school. They often included a report on students' personal qualities or behaviour.
Parents generally allowed the teacher to complete the diagnosis before opening up the consultation. We could describe the pattern as tadpole-shaped - with the teacher's diagnosis forming the head and the following two-way conversation forming the tail. The length of the tail varied, from a few desultory exchanges to extended, sometimes heated, exchanges for 10 minutes or more.
Although every parent wants to hear good news, it was clear that simply saying nice things about a student was unsatisfactory. Parents seldom allowed the consultation to end immediately after a "good news" diagnosis. Instead, they might raise a specific worry or request more details.
There could be at least two reasons for this. First, parents might suspect that teachers are not giving their child enough specific attention. Second, simply accepting good news leaves them little opportunity to demonstrate their own status as concerned parents.
Parents often had to struggle to open up the consultation, in the face of teachers' tendency to close it down. They found it hard to get across their own views, and difficult to influence teachers' perceptions of their child (for better or worse).
This was partly because teachers tended to control the agenda of the consultation - for instance by defining the legitimate business of the encounter in their opening diagnosis; by consulting technical information such as mark-sheets; and by identifying what was a problem and what was not. Significantly, teachers did not respond to parents' intimate knowledge of their child's home circumstances or emotional problems.
Undoubtedly these teacher control strategies were partly due to their having to cope with up to 30 consultations in an evening. But there may be additional reasons. This kind of interaction, in which one party has more control than another, is similar to institutional talk between professionals in other fields - such as doctors and lawyers - and their clients. The management of personal information, for instance, is a common strategy used by professionals to maintain their expert status against rival claims from lay people. Possibly everyone in parent-teacher consultations is following a blueprint taken from professional-client situations.
Nevertheless, many parents did claim their share of the consultation. Challenges to teachers' judgments or practice prompted complicated negotiations over who was responsible for students' learning problems or behaviour.
Parents and teachers were each obliged to defend their own status as "good" parents or competent professionals, and also the reputation of the student. Parents did not always side with their child. They often agreed with teachers' negative assessments, and were sometimes more critical.
But parents and teachers faced a number of "double binds". Parents who tried to show interest could be judged pushy, over-anxious, or interfering; yet "leaving it up to the teacher" could be seen as unsupportive. Teachers who tried to make lessons fun could be criticised as lax; but if they claimed to stretch students they could be held to be harsh.
The research found no formulas for settling such tricky questions of competence, responsibility and esteem. There were no right answers in the abstract to what, and how much, should be set for homework in order to find favour with parents; how rigorously a parent needed to monitor homework; how much consideration special needs children should be given; who was at fault when a student did not understand.
It was during the conversation itself that conduct came to be construed as good or blameworthy.
Students were present in slightly more than half the consultations, but their contributions were in most cases minimal, and silence was not uncommon. Teachers might address their diagnosis to the student, but it was often the parent who responded. So the students' role was often that of passively listening to discussions of their achievements, shortcomings and prospects. When they were specifically invited into the conversation this was often for disciplinary purposes.
In any case, it was clear that the triangular nature of consultations where students were present added to the awkwardness of the exchange.
On the evidence of our research, parent-teacher consultations could be described, paradoxically, as offering those involved a mixture of predictability and high uncertainty. On the one hand, they are routine and formulaic, with teachers seeming to hold the upper hand. On the other, they are fraught with jeopardy and risk of censure for all concerned. The dialogue seemed, overall, to be either deferential or defensive.
This is nobody's fault. People act out the rules of institutional talk without really being aware of it. Perhaps the most pressing question raised is whether institutional talk is the best blueprint for parent-teacher dialogue. And if not, how can teachers and parents break out of the patterns of control and struggle, "us" and "them", which they unintentionally recreate each time they meet?
It is only by understanding the complex negotiations over power and identity that take place during these five-minute encounters that teachers and parents will be able to work towards more equitable home-school "partnerships".
"Secondary-school parents' evenings: a qualitative study" by Barbara Walker and Maggie Maclure. Supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. Copies available from CARE, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ.