Fiona MacLeod discovers the trials and tribulations of school parents' night

IT IS over almost before it has begun. After waiting what feels like an age, finally Olivia's mother (the brightest child in the class) has finished grilling the teacher and it's your turn.

But just minutes later you are climbing into the car with no idea about how your child is performing, amid a plethora of platitudes that wee Johnny is doing fine.

Recent research has revealed half of parents in Scotland leave a parents' evening without a clear understanding of how their son or daughter is progressing at school.

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Currently, the average Scottish parent receives less than 13 minutes to discuss their child's progress at annual parents' evenings, according to a new report.

The study, by the Leapfrog toy firm, showed Aberdeen parents fared better than the average with 66 per cent leaving parents' nights satisfied with the information they receive.

A third of parents are only invited to one parents' evening a year, according to the statistics, and a third of fathers in Scotland admitted they have never attended their child's parents' evening, leaving it up to their partner to attend.

Dr Janine Spencer, a child development specialist based at Brunel University, said parents' evenings were a wasted opportunity for many because they failed to understand what they should be doing to prepare for the event.

The academic has compiled a list of top tips for parents, which includes preparing a list of questions and having a clear idea of what you want to take away from the meeting, such as do you want to know how you can help your child with homework, or to know what their weak areas are?

Dr Spencer also advises taking paper and a pen for making notes, speaking to your child beforehand so you know if they feel they are struggling in any subjects – and organising a babysitter so they don't distract you.

Asking for examples of your child's work will give you a chance to see how they compare with their classmates, suggests Dr Spencer.

But she also advised parents to be prepared for both the positive and the negative. She added: "It is difficult for any parent to hear that their child is not doing well in some areas, no matter how sensitively and fairly it is communicated.

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"You know your child cannot be perfect and, therefore, you need to be prepared for any negative feedback that may arise. It is important to listen carefully to what the teacher is trying to communicate even if it is hard to hear."

The survey found that 53 per cent of parents wanted more feedback as to how their child is performing and progressing in school.

Of the 500 Scottish parents questioned with children under ten, some 75 per cent could not find time to attend their child's parents' evening due to work or family commitments.

The research also revealed 40 per cent of parents would prefer to receive electronic reports, and 57 per cent were keen to meet with teachers at their own convenience rather than attend scheduled parents' evening.

Glasgow headteacher Rod O'Donnell sparked controversy in 2003 when he abolished parents' nights in favour of a scheme introducing one-to-one meetings for parents with teachers during the daytime.

Within a few years, he said, attendance had rocketed from 30 per cent of parents to more than 90 per cent at St Paul's High in Pollok – in one of Scotland's most deprived areas.

Teachers at the school saw up to four parents from each group after researching the pupils' performance with all their subject teachers. This meant parents only had to speak to one teacher rather than troop around each subject tutor and join the inevitable queues for several short meetings.

It also avoided the difficulty of raising sensitive issues in a crowded, hurried environment, the headteacher suggested at the time.

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Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, agreed parents' evenings were a constant issue.

She said: "Schools are under a huge amount of pressure to process a large number of parents through their doors in a relatively short space of time. The key thing is that parents have the chance, if they want, to go back and speak to a teacher."

She revealed some schools rang a bell after five minutes to indicate the time was up for speaking to teachers and that parents should move on.

She added: "Schools try very hard to manage it so no one parent dominates, but there is always going to be that chance that one parent or set of parents will hog a huge amount of a teacher's time.

"But as in life it's up to individual parents to push as hard as they need to, to get the information from the school and if they can't do it on parents' night they should ask the school for more information."

She added: "One of the things schools have to do is be a bit creative about how they reach out to parents and involve them in their children's education."

Olivia's mother will always be a perennial feature of parents' night – the key is to ensure you are prepared to ask the right questions when you finally make it into the classroom with your child's teacher.


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