Parents’ Evenings : Answering Questions

This is the original of a brief piece I did for The Guardian which they published today. Mine’s the first half of the article, while the remainder is by a different contributor. They did cut out one bit, which was the bit where I got sarcastic. They’re saving me from myself…

Why are school reports so formulaic? They say nothing personal about my child. Don’t the teachers know her?

Partly this is the inevitable outcome of the bean-counting culture in our education system, where children become numbers on spreadsheets to be increased, rather than whole individuals to be developed. Schools aren’t trying to be distant, but they’ve been told by Ofsted that providing data is how they will be judged, and that parents care only about test results, so that’s what tends to be presented.

However, partly it’s a feasibility thing : most secondary school teachers will see hundreds of students each week,  often for less than an hour in the company of 29 other students. So unless your child is really naughty (always the ones whose names are learned first), then it’ll take a while before the teacher can say much about them other than stock phrases based around assessment outcomes. By the way, since you asked, the order in which I learn names is : naughty, ginger, loud, funny, very high/low ability, tall, the rest. If your child is quiet, well-behaved, with brownish hair and of average height, forgive me if I seem slightly non-committal at an October parents’ evening; the chances are I don’t know who she is yet.


What the heck do these ‘levels’ mean ?

Levels were initially supposed to give you an idea of how your child was doing at the end of each key stage. So by the end of primary school, most children were expected to be able to be “working at” Level 4, and by the end of Year 9, most would reach Level 5. These were supposed to be approximations reached by teacher judgement considering all their work over the previous year, and based on reasonable expectations of achievement based on the national profile. They were never intended to either be used to mark individual pieces of work, or to provide some sort of measurement of endlessly rising linear progression. Unfortunately, the limitless demands of Ofsted for numbers on spreadsheets meant that’s exactly how they ended up being used, which led us to all sorts of bonkers places, such as awarding students “sub-levels” (which don’t actually exist in most subjects in secondary school – we have to make them up), and demanding that most children achieve a Level by the end of primary school which the original authors of Levels thought would not be achieved by the majority of children even at the end of Year 9.

Throw in the new performance related pay system, in which teachers are told their careers depend on ensuring that all children hit inflated “aspirational” targets based on these non-existent sub-levels (for the uninitiated, “aspirational” usually means “The highest this child could achieve on the best day of their life with the easiest possible test paper, if they’d had Stephen Hawking donate his brain to them. Plus 1.”), and you’ll understand why Gove’s abolition of Levels last year was one of his few policies which didn’t arouse universal derision. Unfortunately, Gove didn’t replace Levels with anything sensible or useful, but simply instructed schools to make up their own assessment systems. So Levels may have been misused and inaccurate, but compared to the smorgasbord of half-baked individual measurement systems on the way, they were the very essence of clarity !

Why hasn’t my son reached his target level in some subjects, when he works really hard and is v bright?

As explained above, targets are often pretty meaningless, and their purpose is more to beat teachers and schools than to help your son. Nevertheless, if there’s an assessment, then the teacher should be able to explain how it was marked, and why the result went one way as opposed to another (whatever measurement system is used). In your case, I’d listen, as given that the teacher’s pay is probably dependent upon your son hitting whatever target has been spat out of the school’s “aspirational” spreadsheets, the fact that he’s still been marked as missing it suggest he has an honest teacher who’ll be able to give you decent feedback.

I want to ask how is my child doing in relation to her classmates?  Teachers look very uncomfortable when asked. 


I understand their discomfort. The sense of weighing and measuring one child against others, as opposed to against common standards, can seem like a betrayal of a group of young people we feel an equal duty of care towards. If I tell you that your child is doing better than Rachel, then I’m telling you how Rachel is doing as well, and you don’t really have a right or need to know that. When pushed, I’ve ventured that a child is in the top/middle/bottom third of the class. However, a better question (well, being top of a weak class is not necessarily a great achievement) – and the one I ask for my own children – is “Are they where you’d want them to be at this point?” Teachers will happily tell you whether your child is doing better/similarly/worse than they’d expect, and what appropriate action can be taken.

If, on the other hand, what you really want is some sort of gloat-ready statistics that you can post on Facebook about how your child leaves her friends in the dust, then I’ll deliberately spill my cup of tea in your lap while I talk really loudly about her being rock-bottom of the entire school. You sad individual.


My son is constantly being praised for ‘teaching the other children’ or ‘helping people with their maths’? Is he doing your job for you?  Why must my daughter do all this group work? She always gets mixed in with children who can’t be bothered, and she ends up doing all the work. It’s not fair.

I was a bright kid often asked to help others, and I too was peeved at school when I was having to carry the load for the group while Alice fiddled with her hair and Kathryn drew rude pictures on Anna’s book. However, there is a lot of pretty convincing evidence that one of the best ways to secure and improve both knowledge and understanding is not to receive it from others, but to deliver it to others. So in situations where children are helping other children learn, they are almost certainly learning more themselves than if they were passively receiving instruction from the teacher. So while it may seem annoying at the time, feel free to come back and compare exam results with the freeloaders in a year or two, and see if you’re still miffed about having to do your group’s presentation on the similarities between the Stasi and Ofsted on your own.

I reported a boy for bullying and although the school seemed to take it seriously I never heard the outcome. Why not?

Schools do take bullying very seriously. If unaddressed it can escalate in the classroom, even though much of it now takes place outside school, particularly online. It is a very difficult situation because often it’s a “he-said-she-said” situation with little or no hard evidence. Nevertheless, even without evidence action will usually be taken to reduce contact between protagonists, and a watchful eye will be kept. Remember that just because you didn’t hear about an outcome doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. It’s important to bear in mind that both parties in a bullying situation are children, and often bullying results from a difficult background situation for the bully or can be part of wider behavioural issues, and so it wouldn’t be appropriate for the school to share details with the parent of another child. I know that can be frustrating, but the issue to focus on is whether the bullying stops, not whether revenge has been duly visited on the bully.

Can I email you when I have queries or problems?

Yes, please do. Much better than phone calls, as we teachers can deal with emails in those snatched seconds between going on strike, reading Das Kapital, or weighing our “gold-plated” pensions while cackling about our inability to be sacked (sorry, channelling a bit of Gove, there). Also, given that issues connected to children are often quite emotionally charged, it’s a good idea to allow both parent and teacher to think hard about what they want to say and how to say it. Email is good.


12 thoughts on “Parents’ Evenings : Answering Questions

  1. Very interesting blog. At present, we in our school’s science dept. are currently having to fill in this term’s ‘data report’ for year 7’s. This has curiously been titled the ‘Spring data report’ (we already did one earlier on this term). When I pointed out that the temperature in my baltic lab was telling me it was winter, our data manager said ‘Think of daffodils emerging through green grass! This term, target levels have been generated via CAT scores rather than placing a heavy weighting on primary school data. No one knows which algorithm or alchemy has been applied to produce such a fete, but it has yielded some rather surprising levels (including sub-levels). We have also over-hauled our test base with new assessments to generate working sub-levels. The first batch of these were producing rather inflated scores, so the thresholds were adjusted (again, more eye of toad and wing of bat). So we’re using targets which no one has any confidence in, using an assessment system which is dysfunctional. Our current advice is to look at the test generated level and then ‘massage’ it using our ‘professional judgement’. My observation that maybe we could have just done that in the first place resulted in a ‘tumbleweed’ moment in the science staff room at lunch time. Good job I didn’t mention my idea of doing away with levels altogether and recognising that children’s learning/achievement could not be reduced to a number in this manner anyway – I’ll save that for the next departmental meeting! I have come to the conclusion that there is a ‘cognitive dissonance’ taking place amongst well meaning but deluded managers, who are compelled to repeat the target/data/progress mantra while at the back of their minds something is telling them it’s all bollocks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the “What the heck does these levels mean?” part. Progression being linear forgets that we are working with the biggest variable possible, kids. Think there is a lot to be said about just being honest to parents and stop bamboozling them with a load of meaningless & superficial data


  3. Dear Disappointed Idealist, I read your piece in the Guardian yesterday and wondered if you might be interested to discuss a book project that we’re working on at the moment? If you email me, we could discuss further . . .

    Best wishes,

    Sandra Wake


  4. Parents want to know how their child compares to the other children in the class because its the only no-bullshit way to get a straight answer and real indication of how their child is going. Every other indication of achievement is useless, as are motherhood questions like “are they where you’d want them to be at this point?”. By all means use bands (top 10% etc) but be fair to parents and give some indication.


    • Vellem, I’m afraid I disagree. Knowing where your child is in a class tells you only the relative position of your child compared to 29 other children. Those children may be all doing very well, in which case being bottom of that class could still be a very high achievement for your child on any objective scale. Or they could be a low-performing group, in which case, being at the top might still see your child as doing worse than other children locally or nationally, or indeed worse than they should be doing based on their own ability.

      The only value of such unrepresentative rankings is bragging rights in a meaningless competition. To use your own language, it’s pointless information : bullshit, in other words.

      Whereas knowing whether your child is achieving an absolute standard (a GCSE grade equivalent at GCSE, for example), or demonstrating the skills for children of his/her age, is actually useful. I agree it’s motherhood information, in that it’s solid, dependable and useful. But then maybe that wasn’t how you were using that term.


  5. Knowing where your child is in the class is only useful if you want tthem to be at the top – which depends on them having the capability to be there. I’m interested in how this matches with Malcom Gladwell’s thesis in “David and Goliath” that it is better to be a big fish in a small pond than a lowly fish in a prestigious pong
    I attempted to find reputable research – don’t have the book here.
    The position of your child in the class is a question of context. It says nothing about the child.


    • I’m a little confused by this can I reply to it as an email?



      *From:* Disappointed Idealist [] *Sent:* 11 December 2014 13:00 *To:* *Subject:* [New comment] Parents’ Evenings : Answering Questions

      rcganz commented: “Knowing where your child is in the class is only useful if you want tthem to be at the top – which depends on them having the capability to be there. I’m interested in how this matches with Malcom Gladwell’s thesis in “David and Goliath” that it is better”


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