It's good to talk

16th March 2001 at 00:00
Parents' meetings with school managers are likely to take place when something has gone wrong, so it is vital to be well prepared, writes Sean McPartlin

The Foreign Secretary, various MSPs and Big Uncle Dougie from Tarbrax are just some of the folk with whom I have been threatened in meetings with parents over the years. To be fair, negative experiences have been few; co-operation and support are far more common. However, the interface with parents can be a potentially difficult area for school management.

The triangle of support between teacher, pupil and parent, is vital to educational success. While most schools seek to maximise communication between the class teacher and home, using school planners and such like, generally speaking, the classroom teacher will not meet face-to-face with parents outside formal parents' evenings. The direct link with home is more usually forged through the guidance teacher, school management, or one of the outside agencies supporting school staff.

Management are most likely to be involved, alone, or in support of guidance staff, when things have gone seriously wrong for the pupil. This can make for highly charged meetings: it's natural for a concerned parent to wish to support their child, and equally common for parents to feel threatened when summoned to the heidie's office, particularly if they have unhappy memories of their own schooldays.

Clearly the manager must be aware of this and should have strategies to handle the situation professionally and effectively. This relates not just to the conduct of the meeting, but also to its setting and preparation beforehand.

Meetings with parents should be in rooms that are as pleasant as possible; parents are an integral part of the school community and should be treated as such. Their child's troubles or misbehaviour should not affect the basic amiability of their welcome into the school. Civility, as they say, costs nothing.

The meeting should be conducted in a business-like manner, avoiding jargon, free from interruptions, and with every attempt to listen to the parents' and pupil's point of view.

A good start to any meeting would be to declare that all in the room are there in an attempt to support the pupil in making the most of their educational opportunities. However, it is the work done before the meeting that will contribute most to its success. Detailed background must be available to the interviewer - the result of close and supportive working between management and guidance team.

f parents are concerned for the future of their child's education, they deserve at least to know that the manager has a clear and accurate knowledge of their child's history or involvement in an incident. Taking into account the child's point of view is not only good practice, but required by the United Nations' Children's Charter.

The manager should know beforehand what possible outcomes the meeting may have, and it is helpful if parents are also made aware of the options.

Except in the most dire of cases, the school's willingness to work with and support the family, to emphasise the inclusivity of its approach, is also a vital tool in promoting confidence and trust between manager and parents. Managers must never let themselves be acccused of "covering up" for "bad teachers", or "closing ranks". Equally, school staff must be confident that their management team will support them vigorously and consistently in cases where parents have "got it wrong", or are making unjustified criticisms. In this connection, feedback to all involved, in the shape of formal or informal minutes can be helpful.

All this, of course, presupposes that meetings with parents are held within a shared and agreed framework of the school's ethos and expectations. From the first P7 "taster" meeting, parents and prospective pupils have to be aware of exactly what the school stands for, its expectations of all within its community, and on what values the school's mission statement is based.

Parents, staff and pupils must all be involved in identifying the ethos they want for their school, and then contributing to it and supporting it. Under such a model, even a "difficult" meeting with parents can be held in the knowledge that there is a shared vision of what the school should be offering, what the pupils should be achieving, and how the parent should be supporting this.

With such a common understanding going into the meeting, however painful the details may be, the overwhelming majority of parents will be co-operative and supportive. Like so much else, it's down to clear communication.

Recently, it was pointed out that the golden M on our pupils' sweatshirts stands for our patron, St Margaret, rather than a well-known American fast food chain. We like to think, also, that, as a school, rather than a business, we have a little more time for the folk who come through our doors, recognising them as partners rather than customers.

Sean McPartlin is assistant head at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston

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