Sir Michael “Take no prisoners” Wilshaw is on record, in an interview with The Times as saying that parents who miss parents’ evenings or let children get away without doing homework should be fined. When he was a head he would tell such defaulters that they were “bad parents”.
Many teachers, even if they have doubts about applying fines, will recognise the feelings behind that. Chances are they, like me, will have often said, or heard in the staffroom, the day after parents’ evening: “Of course, the ones you need to see never turn up.”
I guess that what we don’t say nearly so often is: “I wonder why they don’t come?”
It’s probably too naughty of me to suggest that had I been a parent of an underperforming child at Sir Michael’s school, I might have thought twice about meeting him. Still, I do wonder whether the time-honoured home-school structure of timetabled homework and interview-style parents’ evenings is in need of a refresh.
It’s not easy, for example, to set good homework tasks that are inclusive, of well-judged length and difficulty, and convincing to students and parents of their importance to learning.
The challenge for teachers is considerable and it’s not surprising if they sometimes set exercises simply to fill the compulsory slots on a senior-leadership dictated timetable. As a result students become sceptical of the value of homework, and parents, with more than enough family issues, may feel that this is one confrontation with their teenagers that they would rather not have.
In the same way, if parents’ evening is the only time that parents are asked to come up to school to discuss their child’s work, only to find it a bewildering and frustrating business of appointments, bad timekeeping, queuing for a 10-minute slot, and disappointment (“We never got to see his maths teacher”), they may well give it a miss next time.
Many schools – most I hope – are at great pains to do better in all these areas. Homework is integrated from the planning stage – “flipped learning” being an increasingly popular solution.
Parents’ evening booking systems improve and go online, those who can’t make the main meeting, or who need a bit longer, are offered follow-up slots. At least one school I’ve spoken to lately is considering video appointments for some remote farming families, using Microsoft Lync.
I can’t help thinking, though, that in time, Sir Michael’s concerns will be overtaken by events. A few years ago, parental engagement was high on the national agenda in the wake of the then government’s insistence on schools giving parents online access to their children’s data.
At that time I visited a number of schools and discovered that most parents feel they are already up-to-speed on basic information.
What they really want to know, and preferably see, is what their children are actually studying, and the work they’re asked to do. Questioning them – “What did you do at school today?” – rarely leads anywhere, so anything that brings parents into the learning loop is welcome.
That’s now become much easier to achieve. Cloud technology together with one-to-one portable devices mean that a student’s assignments, work in progress and resources can be accessible from home, school, the local library, anytime anywhere on desktop, laptop or tablet computer.
Not only does this mean that the sharp distinction between homework and school work starts to fade, but it’s also easier for parents to see and become engaged with their children’s work, not by hectoring or doing the teacher’s job, but by listening, encouraging and taking an informed interest.
One effect is that parent-teacher meetings, whether at parents’ evenings or otherwise, become more informed, more productive and generally less forbidding to either side.
All that said, one more really vital lesson that I picked up is that here is another area where technology cannot do the job on its own. It works best in schools that are already trying hard to reach into the community and introduce parents to their children’s learning. From coffee mornings, home visits and curriculum workshops, to information buses parked on estates and outreach sessions in places of worship and community centres, each school finds its own best solutions; the common factor is the will to do it.
Of course I understand if you come back at me with: “Don’t you think we have enough to do. Why should we make all that effort when parents won’t?”
The answer is that it is not just about being socially responsible. There’s the highly practical point that when it comes to school improvement it’s necessary to cover all the angles, and there’s plenty of evidence that links student achievement to effective parental engagement.
But notice the real message here. “Engagement” is not really about making the child do what the school wants. It’s more a matter of paying attention to the child and in what they’re doing at school. Which means, I’d say, that forcing your child to do homework is the very opposite of becoming engaged in their learning.
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1