How's my Timmy doing?

Parents' evenings offer little insight into how a child is progressing. By Bethan Marshall
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The Independent Online
As I approached the classroom, the deputy head smiled. "How does it feel to be on the other side?" "Much more nerve-wracking," I replied as I passed through the doors to hear the verdict on my daughter's first year at school. We were, of course, at a parents' evening, that rare moment in the school year when teachers and parents discuss the progress of the children in their care.

The motivations for this meeting are not always the same. As a teacher I was always most anxious to meet the parents of children who were underachieving: those who never did their homework or were hopelessly behind in coursework; those who sporadically produced pieces of work that were marvellous but who seemded worn out by the effort for the rest of the year; or those who simply clowned around and disrupted others.

I did, however, enjoy encounters with parents in which I could be enthusiastic or lavish with my praise. And even when I had concerns, I tried to couch them in a constructive manner. Yet those whom I most wanted to see often failed to appear; their dread of what was coming, the complications of attending on a given day or their lack of interest prevented their appearance.

As a parent, my frustrations are of a different kind. Rather than a chance to enlist the support of a parent in the education of their child, parents' evenings have become a deeply personal affair. These people are talking about my child, passing judgement on her, and I want to be reassured as well as to express my concerns. I feel as if I am at the wrong end of an eagerly awaited long-distance phone call. I can't decide how to read that curious intonation, or that particular adjective and while I'm trying to work it out, I'm aware the clock is ticking away and I forget what it is I wanted to say. Before I know it my time is up for another four months.

One problem is the pressured nature of these events. You only have a short time and they do not happen that often. Although more personal contact would be preferable, other mechanisms, such as homework diaries, do exist so that parents can help in the monitoring of that children's progress, and herein lies the difference between the primary and secondary sector, or certainly the early years of primary schooling.

The primary children take nothing home apart from reading books, usually accompanied by a home-school link record. In these the dialogue is often excellent. Yet I have no way of knowing how my child is doing in anything else, until I am presented with a series of exercise books, and the report, 10 minutes before my termly meeting with the teacher.

The feeling that you have no idea what topic your child has been followng creates insecurity. The frustration of realising in February that they have done little maths or that the standard they are producing is below their capability damages the trust in the school.

There are ways, however, of keeping abreast of your child's schoolwork that don't require a form-filling nightmare for the teacher:

ask for three meetings a year or request that they are spread over two nights so that the interviews are not so short. Jot down at list of points you want to ask the teacher before going to the meeting and take it with you

try to avoid making a catalogue of complaints, but be intimidated, either.

Teachers, for their part, can:

print out topics for each half-term in a newsletter

send home maths puzzles and problems, or exercise books in the same way as reading books

send home reports at least a day in advance to give parents more time to think and react.

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