Fathers brawling in the queue, nosy neighbours listening in - parents'
evenings can be a rather chaotic affair. Hannah Frankel finds out how schools are benefiting from a more individual approach
Jo Preston sits quietly with Darryl Avery and his mother Sharon. This is a different sort of parents' evening. Instead of being surrounded by a throng of other parents, it is a private, unrushed meeting, the sort of appointment where a deal can be brokered.
"You are above average intelligence and could do very well in your GCSEs, but your behaviour is really letting you down," Jo, a teacher at South Dartmoor College in Dev-on, says calmly.
Jo is Darryl's tutor and is referring to the Year 8's two temporary exclusions this year. There's no point arguing, and Darryl knows it. The facts are clearly laid out on the computer in front of them - everything from his attendance to grade indicators, behaviour and test results are up on the screen.
Andy Hamlyn, assistant principal, attends all appointments where behaviour is an issue. In the chat that follows, he discovers that Darryl is a fan of basketball. Together they come up with three behaviour-related promises that Darryl makes to himself.
If he keeps to his word, he will receive a new basketball from the school in May. He smiles at the thought and promises to do better. Additional private meetings like this are not unusual among schools, especially when handling under-performing pupils. What makes South Dartmoor stand out is that it conducts these much more personalised and effective appointments for every one of its 1,600-plus pupils, in place of traditional parents'
Many other schools are starting to do the same, according to Margaret Morrisey from the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.
"The 10-minute parents' evening slot is never enough for parents," she says. "There is neither the time nor the privacy to talk about issues in any real depth. Parents are getting increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied with the system."
When dissatisfaction spilled into violence at Varndean School, Brighton, it was clear that parents' evenings had to stop. One father, an ex-policeman, experienced "queue rage" at the school's parents' evening and head-butted another father. It was left to a female teacher to try to tear them apart.
"These fathers were rolling around on the floor, wrestling with each other, and I thought either our parents' evenings are so successful that they are willing to fight over them, or it's time for a change," says Andy Schofield, headteacher. Now, twice a year, the school is closed, pupils are given homework, and parents allocated a 20-minute slot to come and talk with the form tutor.
Work commitments are no excuse for missing appointments, Andy says. "People take time off for doctor's appointments, so why not for their child's education?" he asks.
Despite a vocal minority of parents who would like to return to traditional evenings, the majority support the school's decision and attendance now stands at more than 90 per cent. Studies indicate that other parents would welcome a more personal approach.
Recent research is thin on the ground, but a survey in 1998 involving 183 secondary schools states that parents are almost universally critical about parents' evenings, describing them as a cross between a doctor's waiting room and King's Cross station.
"It is hard to think of an ideal way in which several hundred parents can meet and discuss progress with all their children's teachers over a few hours," says Sally Powers, who conducted the research for the Institute of Education at the University of London.
"Rather than being a forum for dialogue, the majority of parents feel they are more of a one-way dissemination of knowledge, much of which confirms or clarifies what has been said in the school reports."
Teachers can also make parents feel responsible for their child's poor behaviour, the report states. If parents sense this, they are unlikely to feel welcome at the school.
Sharon Avery can attest to that, especially when her sons were in trouble with the school. "It was really intimidating," she says of traditional parents' evenings. "It was as if I was being treated like a child again. I would be waiting nervously and then be faced with two teachers. I felt others were listening in, which isn't so nice when it's not good news."
In contrast, individual appointments or performance review meetings offer the privacy and time to address any difficulties effectively. South Dartmoor scrapped parents' evenings four years ago, and has seen attendance at its more personalised meetings rise from 70 per cent to almost 100 per cent.
The crowded, noisy and rushed parents' evenings left the teachers exhausted and the parents frustrated, according to Ray Tarleton, principal. Now the college sets aside one day a week in February between 11am and 7pm, when parents and their children make an appointment to come and discuss any issues with the pupil's tutor. And there are subject-specific meetings for Years 9 to 11 and reports sent home three times a year.
The college works hard to ensure every parent makes an appointment with their tutor and keeps it. Parents are reminded by phone, and an education welfare officer is available to drive more elusive parents in if necessary.
Subject leaders are on hand throughout the day, but due to the fluid and comprehensive sharing of data using Capita's SIMS Parents' Gateway, Ray says most parents feel the meeting with the tutor is enough. "We couldn't do this without the technology," he says.
"The tutor brings all the data up on the screen with the parent, and it gives a holistic feel for the pupil. It takes a while for tutors to feel comfortable talking about other subjects, but they receive a lot of training on working with data and spotting trends."
Technology is integral to a system at Eggbuckland College in Plymouth, which sees pupils and teachers add data onto electronic individual learning plans. The e-ILP - which can consist of anything from personal blogs, targets, action plans and hopes and fears for the future - then forms the basis for the college's twice yearly review days, which replaced parents'
evenings in 2005.
Although the meetings only last 20 minutes, parents are encouraged to stay longer and take advantage of presentations about post-16 progression routes and higher education.
In the future, Katrina Borosky, the principal, would like to introduce educational sessions for parents about how they can further support their children's learning.
"The review days now serve a purpose as opposed to just being something that we felt we had to do," Katrina says