Are you sitting comfortably?

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Teachers know that if all parents are working with us we can achieve great things with their children. Politicians now realise this too. The news is full of stories about school discipline and parental contracts - linked because everyone acknowledges that parents' support is vital.

How to gather this support is a central question for primary schools. We know that the answer must lie in how teachers meet and talk with parents about their child's learning. Parents' evenings have altered very little, compared with the many changes in education. But they must change if we want to improve children's behaviour and learning.

Parental conference days are uncommon, and yet in my nine-year experience (in three different schools) of meeting parents in this way, they have had a significant impact on the relationship between school and home. Our parents have said they are very happy with this approach and that it has led to improvements in their children's work.

Parental conferences in our school are 15-minute sessions held twice a year for parents and teachers to talk about each child's learning, in privacy and comfort, and in a relaxed atmosphere. They enhance the teacher's professional role and the parents' involvement and confidence. The discussions are based on a set format, so that neither teachers nor parents feel intimidated. They are highly specific, focusing on concrete evidence of each child's attainments.

Above all, they look forward, setting personal goals for each child, not backward at his or her misdeeds.

Before the meeting, parents can look at their child's work and record of achievement folder. The teacher then invites them into a comfortable room - perhaps the head's office or the staffroom. With the guidance of a questionnaire, which the parents have already read and thought about, the teacher talks with them about their child:

u What does he or she enjoy doing out of school?

u What does he or she enjoy doing in school?

u What work are you pleased with that he or she has done so far?

u What area of learning does the child need to develop this year?

u What support can parents give their child?

The question about the area for development is central. The teacher guides the discussion, presenting the evidence of the child's work, to show why he or she has picked out a particular element - for instance, reading or spelling. Most parents agree with the teacher's conclusion. If a parent has a more

pressing concern (say, self-image or presentation) the teacher discusses and takes account of it, but in the end the key focus for development is down to the teacher's professional judgment. The teacher decides and asks for the parents' support.

During the next meeting, the teacher asks how the parents think their child has progressed in that area of learning. This helps them to concentrate on success and development. They are reflecting on the specific learning target as well as work covered in the classroom. After each conference they are given a copy of what was said and asked to go through it with their child at home. They also agree to help their child at home - for instance with handwriting practice.

Parental conferences have the following purposes:

u To meet at least one parent of every pupil face-to-face twice a year

u To have parents share in the learning of their child by setting one target

u To give all teachers the confidence to be in control of what they see as the educational focus of each pupil

u For parents to see teachers as education professionals

u To show every pupil that their parents are on the teacher's side. This is powerful, but difficult to measure,

u For parents to have enough time to share their concerns and needs.

It is also important that every teacher feels professionally respected and knows he or she will not be undermined, although this does not mean the teacher will not be questioned.

In practice, each year group has one parental conference day or evening in the Autumn term and one in the Summer term. An extra date in the Spring term is set aside for parents of pupils with special educational needs.

Once a date has been picked, the teacher writes to parents asking them to choose 15-minute blocks on a timetable. They are asked to choose more than one block to make it easier to find a mutually acceptable time. Parents who cannot meet on the given dates may negotiate another day before or after school.

Costs include a day's supply cover for each teacher - about #163;120 x 2 (number of parental conferences in the

year) x number of class teachers.

The initial anxiety of teachers must be taken into account as must head's and teachers' organisation and planning time.

The returns include

eye-to-eye contact with

parents. And the fact that teachers have to be clear on the most pressing focus needed for each pupil means the conferences have all the benefits of a reflective staff development day. Pupils also get feedback about their needs from their

parents with a learning target to aim for.

Curriculum workshops for parents become more

purposeful and relevant, parents feel they have had a proper dialogue about their child and the school becomes more proactive than reactive.

Parental conferences become part of the

assessment process,

allowing the teacher to address assessment fully rather than just through national curriculum tests. The confidence of parents is raised, trust in teachers is enhanced, child

protection and health issues are addressed and special educational needs are discussed

More parents attend when learning targets are set. We have a turnout of between 97 and 100 per cent.

However, the biggest benefit is that we know that parents are working with us - as a result we are in the best position to help pupils achieve success.

Ray McGloin is headteacher of St John the Evangelist RC Primary in Bolton

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