I have been teaching for about 8 years now and over that time I must have written thousands of school reports and met hundreds of parents at parents evenings. Both methods of parental engagement have problems in my opinion. As a secondary school teacher of Geography, I probably teach between 200 and 300 students in any given year. I understand that some parents may like the idea of having a written report to savor and cherish when their offspring have grown up and long fled the family nest. However, often these reports are not personalised and are a copy and paste job based on different categories of students. This maybe down to time management but it is also difficult to differentiate between that volume of students within a restrictive 50 to 100 words.
Parents evenings tend to irk me too. When working at a large comprehensive school in the North East of England I noticed that at parents evenings, year 7 tended to be the busiest and attendance started to wane to year 10 and then slightly peak again in year 11 at the crucial time leading to GCSE’s. I also noticed that it was mainly the parents of the ‘good’ kids who turned up, the g&t identified and parents of students for whom I tended to repeat the same comments about repeatedly. It became a situation to tell parents how great their middle class children are in school basically. I’m sure the 4 to 6pm slot meant that many parents simply can’t make a parents evening alongside some who simply don’t care. It is powerful to have that odd discussion with a parent whose child is not making the desired progress and to make that contact sustainable via email for example. Parental support and communication has an impact on these children. But its not done enough from my experience thus far.
I conclude that parents evenings and report writing are largely ineffective. Reporting of data is very useful for teachers and parents. A more visually appealing way of doing this should be considered (e.g. graphically) and also the data has to be understood by the parent so they can quantify the progress their child is making easily.
I propose that more authentic methods of communicating with parents such as the ‘portfolio defence’ are introduced. Instead of written reports and parents evenings which don’t give the full picture of a childs life at school, students are requested to present their progress to their families through a graduation process each academic year. This would involve students thinking deeply about their progress in different disciplines across the academic year. A year 7 student may work with his/her form tutor to collect the evidence from across their subjects to demonstrate progress across the year. They could follow success criteria that is set for a whole year group across the school. Form time could become more valuable when students are reflecting on what pieces/artefacts to present (at least 1 morning in tutor time a week should be collecting evidence of progress). The form tutor and the student will have a detailed dialogue about strengths and weaknesses in each subject referring to data provided by teaching staff.
Students can practice and revise their portfolio defence with their peers in form time for critique. The student will compile a professional portfolio and presentation to present to family members in a formal portfolio defence. This would involve the student demonstrating strong oracy and the ability to answer questions from the form tutor and a range of family members say in a half hour slot. The form tutor instead of speaking to 300 parents at parents evening now has to speak to a smaller group over a more convenient time period. A whole day on the school calender could be used for students to come in and present their portfolios to their family members. Appointments are arranged by the form tutor directly with the family at good notice and a convenient time for the busy modern day parent. All parents would be expected to attend and not just the middle class cultural capital types. The portfolio defence would be the start of a dialogue between parent, child and form tutor.
Here are some example of how it works in practice for students preparing for college in the USA. This technique could be adapted for younger students;