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Revising opinions on parents

Michael James and Mike Fielding believe parents provide a valuable resource for improving pupils' exam performance.

Advising parents on how to help their children with revision was looked upon with some scepticism to begin with. GCSE and A-level teachers give instructions to groups of students, and some PSE programmes include study skills and revision programmes. But would parents want to become involved? Wouldn't they know what to do already?

Since last September we had been looking very seriously at improving examination performance. We had read all the recent TES articles on improvement and had initiated: * monthly comparisons of potential and current performance; * mock examination results and predicted grades, with departments able to compare individual's performance in their subject against that pupil's average performance in all other subjects; * two days of in-service training creating teaching materials when examination board officers were invited in to school for half a day to discuss marking criteria; * a pilot pupil mentor scheme; * a questionnaire for pupils following the mock exams.

The questionnaire had been revealing. Among other issues it identified that 52 per cent of pupils had "prepared" for their mocks without a revision plan and that two subject areas were giving them cause for concern - information we could clearly act on.

The evening for parents in March on how they might help their children was part of the build-up to summer examinations.

Faced with a blank page, however, even though I had made many presentations to large groups of parents and teachers previously, this was new ground and the idea somehow filled me with trepidation. But with only two weeks' notice the response from parents was very encouraging. In the end, about 100 parents came, more than returned the slips at the bottom of the invitation; a pretty remarkable turnout with a year 11 parents' evening scheduled the following week.

After we quickly organised more chairs, the head welcomed everyone and I began my presentation. I ex-plained that there were no magic answers to exam success. Pupils learn in different ways and what might work for one is of little use to another. Many of the suggestions we could make were simple but a partnership between home and school increased the chances of success.

Honesty and support are crucial elements if a partnership is to work. Parents must be kept informed of areas such as predicted grades and current performance. Report writing must be informative and rigorous, with targets for pupils, identifying areas for improvement. Parents then have information on which to act. Encouragement and support are needed rather than confrontation when progress is disappointing.

We are a boys' school. The seeming inability of even very able boys to match the dedication and self-organisation of girls has implications for every school. I spent some time describing the research on boys, their attitude to school work, revision and success.

Then we distributed a diary covering the remainder of the academic year and examination dates. This is designed to enable parents to become involved with organising and planning. A weekly planner was also distributed.

This emphasised the need to start revision straight away, if it had not already started, with small doses of about an hour to 90 minutes every night, but especially at weekends.

This is a potential cause for conflict. To devote time to revision or extra school work means other things must be forgone. Parents were warned that this was likely to cause friction and without proper planning there would be problems.

There have to be sacrifices if a teenager is to devote enough time to proper revision. Boys especially seem reluctant to be seen to need help organise this.

Practical suggestions on how parents could help with individual subjects was also offered. In languages, for example, parents can help at home learning and testing vocabulary. In other subjects where information has to be learnt from notes or textbooks parents can help test information. Giving verbal answers to parents in any subject is also good examination preparation, making the pupil think carefully about the answers they are giving.

This kind of support requires detailed information on syllabus content for the relevant level of entry. Heads of department were asked to ensure that this information be made available to students if it wasn't already. Departments were also asked to give individual targets to students when they were together with their parents at the appropriate parents evening.

How students learn was a more difficult issue. We cited an article by Patricia Skalka explaining how we can all improve our memory and several books on study skills from the school library were also on display so that parents could obtain these books for themselves.

All had articles on revision technique. And we outlined the traditional method of reducing notes and explanations to cards.

There was nothing startling about any of the suggestions. What was rewarding was the reception, questions and thanks following the evening. There are a group of people out there who want to help with children, don't always know how to and welcome the opportunity to become more involved. They are able to support their children in the evening and help organise students who may need help in that particular area. Parents are also willing to ensure time is spent revising. They are well placed to test after a subject area has been revised at home.

The moral of the story is to use them.

Michael James is deputy head at Richard Hale School, Hertford

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