Friday, 23 April 2010

Parents' Evening

No, not the Friday night 'kick-your-shoes-off-lie-on-the-sofa-never-mind-the-glass-give-me-the-bottle' evening once the kids are safely tucked up in their little beds. And not that kind of parent's evening either, Heather. Do behave yourself! No, I mean the one where you go along - by appointment - to your child's school and sit on a too-small chair and nod and smile (or groan and grimace) while a teacher tells you how your child is doing, what level they've been working at and whether their imaginative skills could be improved by a greater willingness on your part to allow them to make models of the Forth Bridge out of macaroni. Or spaghetti.

I've been to a few in my time, and on both sides of the desk. Last year, my daughter's teacher actually called me 'sir'. He was a former pupil of mine; old habits die hard. Like the feelings some people have of dread, foreboding and an overwhelming urge to blurt 'I didn't do it!' the moment they set foot inside a school.

Last night was my first experience, as a parent, of a secondary school parent's evening. It was the usual cattle-market in a sports hall, with people queuing by the tables of 'important' teachers, parents jockeying for position, and teachers of 'Cinderella' subjects like RE and music sitting doing nothing but pretending to be really busy while at the same time furtively scanning the room to see if anyone's coming. I've been there.

I've also been guilty, I realise now, of giving well-meaning, interested and supportive parents a load of tosh instead of telling them what they want to know. When you're well-versed in the, er bullshit it can be difficult, sometimes, to translate. It's like the doctor telling you you've got otitis media (an ear infection) or that you need a submucosal resection (nose job). All professions do it. Sociologists call it the 'disambiguation of knowledge' (they're just as bad, see?) and reckon it's a deliberate attempt to guard the secrets of the inner circle.

But teaching is supposed to be about communication, so you'd think they (we) might make more effort. Fortunately I know what a level 5C in attainment area 4 means, and that a target of 7A by the end of Key Stage Three represents a decent enough achievement. I can read (and translate) the National Curriculum, because most teachers do that every day as part of their lessons. Pupils simply want to know what they have to do to be successful; parents want to know how successful their children have been and how to help them make more progress; teachers have to plan that progress and provide the learning opportunities. It's simple when you think about it. But the language isn't. Here are some examples: pupils '...use their understanding of others’ designing [sic] by reinterpreting and applying learning in new contexts (Design Technology, or woodwork, sewing and cookery); 'When establishing the evidence for a particular enquiry, pupils consider critically issues surrounding the origin, nature and purpose of sources...' (history); and finally, pupils '...analyse and comment on their own and others’ work, appreciating how codes and conventions are used to express ideas in different genres, styles and traditions' (art).

Which means, precisely?

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for people teaching what needs to be taught, parents being told how their children are doing and employers knowing what potential employees can do. I'm just not sure if we're as good at it as we need to be, and I'd love to hear what you think. If you're a teacher, how confident are you that your parents' evening message is being received and understood? And as a parent, do you go away from meetings like these with a clear idea of what your son or daughter has achieved? And - more pertinently - what they need to do to continue making progress?

Mind you, one thing became crystal clear last night. In a five minute conversation with each of my daughter's teachers, all those dinner-table conversations we've been having since the start of term about individual teaching styles, the lessons she enjoys and the teachers she likes were vividly brought to life. Who needs lesson observations when you can tell so much just by sitting across a table, listening to someone talk about one of their pupils? I reckon with a bit of tweaking, a parents' evening conversations could become a new way of assessing the quality of teaching.

So maybe parents' evenings tell you something after all - not about the pupils, but the teachers!

Doing something very silly when I used to be a teacher.... which one is me?

'...had that Gary Barlow in the back of me class, once...'

...and yes, this lot are all former pupils too!
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