Every teacher and school leader wants to please the parents of their school children. And quite right too. From a warm conversation at parents evening, to a celebratory phone call, it can prove one of the perks of the job. A letter or email from a thankful parents can be circulated around school as a timely fill-up
And yet…let me confess an unpopular and rarely expressed opinion. In schools, we also face the problem of trying to please parents and it actually prove one of the drives for unhealthy habits and practices in our schools.
I say this as both a parent and a teacher (with the internal conflict that can engender).
Let’s dig into the specifics for why pleasing parents is a problem that besets schools. I would pose four problems that are in part driven by a subtly damaging desire to please parents:
The Marking Mountain
I give you exhibit A: excess marking. As a profession, we are haemorrhaging teachers and struggling to recruit. We have a workload problem (don’t call it a crisis!) and one of the chief causes is the damaging expectation for excessive marking in too many schools.
One reason for the morass of marking is a mistaken understanding the marking matters hugely: to learning, to OFSTED, but also to parents. And perhaps we are right, marking does matter to parents. For parents, it offers a visible proxy that the teacher is closely supporting their child. As a parent, I get that.
However, is the excessive effort worth it? Or are we just misguidedly pleasing parents and school leaders? Indeed, Dylan William labelled marking as “one of the most expensive public-relations exercises in history”! Despite knowing that the evidence that attends the effectiveness of marking is scant, we keep teachers flogging away at ‘flick and tick’ and more.
2. More Homework Please
Some parents hate homework, and yet some love it. They want to see lots of it, checked and accounted for (whether it is very good homework that advances learning or not).
For some, homework is an argument waiting to happen, a chore to be endured, or even a job for the parent (Mott and Bailey castles anyone?). Even still, the idea of not having any homework is worrying. As a parent, I get that. You don’t want your child to fall behind. And yet, the available evidence on homework for young children is that is makes little difference. Do we want interminable worksheets when reading with a parent can get pushed out?
At secondary school, it is easy to stick with habitual homework policies because we simply fear a backlash from parents. Is yet more homework and yet more marking truly valuable? We should certainly be asking that question.
3. The Pressure on Student Grouping
Every middle and senior leader has been on the end of a tricky phone call with a parent about what child their class is in. In primary school, parents can murmur at the school gates about the relative merits of teachers. In secondary school, setting by ability can become a parental arms race, whilst it is proving much more common in primary schools.
Having two young children, I know I want the best for my children. In truth, sometimes that trumps all else. Which is why, in loco parentis, school leaders make the crucial decisions about student groupings. And yet setting trumps all, despite ability grouping likely means that disadvantaged students miss out on the ‘top sets’.
There is no evidence that setting benefits most children, but it can be hard to move away from such a model. Crucially, it is hard to be flexible with student groupings when faced with strong-willed parents. Would we really move student X from the ‘top set’ if we knew their parent would challenge it vehemently?
4. Report, report, report
School reports are age-old artefacts. Many of us will have our school reports stashed in a draw, to be looked at every once in a while with a little longing and nostalgia. In the last two decades, with the advent of league tables and the all-conquering spreadsheet, schools have become awash with reports.
Parents want to be up with how their child is doing at school. At secondary school particularly, without the personal opportunities offered by the school gates chats with their child, the proxy of regular reporting has become a common feature. But has it all gone too far?
Do monthly targets, half-termly updates, termly data reports, and more, really help our students to learn more? I am sceptical. What I know is that teachers are tethered to reporting cycles like dogs in kennels. Our very curriculum, the vehicle for learning, is too often steered by reporting. We need to stop to seemingly please parents and reconsider our practices.
Parent problems and possible solutions
Perhaps many of these issues are a matter of communication. Most parents are not experts in teaching and learning. Homework and marking and reports all look like they help their child learn, but the devil is in the detail. We need to help communicate the devilishly complex issues plainly and respectfully (take the example of communicating a change of marking approaches HERE).
The rewards could be huge. Less marking, better homework and fewer reporting cycles may help reduce teacher workload and streamline school systems. Doing all this could even lead to better learning and improved communication between school and home. It would take courage and a great deal of careful implementation and communication.
Pleasing parents needn’t be a problem. It should be at the heart of our solutions.