Research School Network: To be (there) or not to be (there)? – parents’ evenings in the climate of Covid Rachael Wilson, Deputy Director of Norwich Research School


To be (there) or not to be (there)? – parents’ evenings in the climate of Covid

Rachael Wilson, Deputy Director of Norwich Research School

As the UK moves into the Learning to Live with Covid[1]” Phase of government strategy, schools are busy organising their Spring term parents’ evenings. As a teacher and a parent, parents’ evening produces mixed emotions- on the one hand, it is wonderful to see and speak with the parents and carers of my pupils, to share their progress and to collaboratively problem solve when they are finding things tricky, and to discuss the progress of my own children; on the other hand, it can be relentless and demanding in terms of energy and logistics for both parties.


Feedback and Research


Enter the Covid 19 pandemic and the move to online parent-teacher meetings. A cursory Google reveals a wealth of opinion pieces on the reported benefits of online parents’ evenings, and many families and staff have requested they are kept this way. There are certainly advantages, but also drawbacks, and it is worth thinking carefully about both of these. The research on working effectively with parents, as reported by the EEF in their Guidance Report[2], shows that effective parental engagement has the potential for strong impact on children’s progress: according to the EEF toolkit, up to four months in learning gains[3]. In the same Guidance report, the first recommendation is that schools reflect critically on their strategies for parental engagement. This is especially relevant in the light of considering whether to keep online parent-teacher conferencing, to return to traditional” face to face meetings, or to offer a blended model. Fundamentally, this decision should be based on careful and critical thought and close knowledge of our settings and families rather than anecdotal feedback.



T
he benefits of meeting online

Convenience:
There is no doubt that from the perspective of premises organisation, individual circumstances and travel, online meetings are easier. For both parents and teachers, there is the inevitable pressure to keep to time, especially if there are siblings involved in Primary settings. Working parents often rush to make appointments, arriving slightly flustered. Often childcare means parents and carers have half an eye on their child, half on the conversation. Online bookings also prevent families running the gauntlet of relying on their child to bring in their bits of paper quickly enough to be given convenient times- the quick access makes it easy.

Flexibility:
Online appointments mean working carers can meet from their workplace, making meetings possible for those who would ordinarily not be able to make them. Where there are challenging family circumstances a virtual space can feel more comfortable for both parties. Instant messaging in a lot of online apps means that when people are running late, teachers can move things around if need be.

Workload:
Traditional parents’ evenings usually take place after a long day of teaching, and whether they are held in a communal space such as the school hall, or in classrooms, they create extra pressure on teachers to ensure these spaces are as tidy, welcoming and inviting as possible. There is the logistical challenge from the beginning, in Primary and smaller settings, of co-ordinating with the teachers of siblings. Booking appointments online mitigates a lot of these issues by reducing the amount of prep time and putting the ownership for appointments back with families.

Punctuality:
In-person parents’ evenings rarely run to time. It can be stressful for both parents and teachers as timekeeping is often at the mercy of others and often, traffic! Where one person’s meeting runs over, the impact is exacerbated the evening draws on. Online timers and virtual waiting rooms help to enforce time boundaries, and make it clear where longer conversations are necessary so that further discussions can be organised.

Accessibility:
We often think about sensory or cognitive overload in children, however social anxiety, mental health conditions, and sensory overload impact on a significant proportion of adults[4]. Throw in the fact conditions may be undiagnosed, and an acknowledgement that not all parents and carers had a good experience of school, and there is clear scope for high levels of discomfort before meetings have even begun. For many adults, being in their own space alleviates feelings of anxiety or overwhelm, allowing for conversation to flow more comfortably.


The drawbacks


It may seem like a no-brainer at this point for schools to continue with online meetings, from convenience alone there are strong reasons in favour of keeping things this way. However there are also drawbacks to meeting online.

Access to classrooms and books:
a lot of parents have been unable to come into school and interact with their child’s learning environment for two years now, and enjoy coming into school and seeing this for themselves. There is no way of replicating this experience online. Creating open door afternoons for parents to access books and classrooms is one solution, but this can create added workload unless managed carefully.

The emotional barometer:
There is something about meeting people face to face that encourages trust and builds relationships in a way that feels natural to them. It is harder to read the emotional barometer” over a computer screen, remembering to smile and nod to show engagement in a way that feels much more natural in person. Having more sensitive or difficult conversations may be done more effectively in person, too. Humans are social creatures, trained to pick up on non-verbal cues.

Parental engagement
: As noted above, some parents/​carers are wary of entering school buildings and difficult to engage. Parents’ evenings are a powerful tool for drawing these families back into the school community and helping to put them at ease and feel welcomed.

Accessibility – again!
: As we discovered during lockdown, online access is an issue of both socio-economic equality and accessibility. In order for meetings to take place, everyone involved must have not only the knowledge of how to access the technology involved, but also have a relevant device and internet connection to support it. It must not be taken for granted that all parents, carers and teachers are confident using online conferencing technology, or have the means to use it.


So what?


So what does this all mean? The advent of online meetings has been rapid and recent and the research evidence base is still emergent, but we can rely on other reliable best bets” when considering whether to keep online elements of school life that were introduced during the height of Covid-19 legislative measures. We know that schools need to consider their own circumstances carefully before implementing or de-implementing changes[5], and it is highly likely that in order to make the most of the advantages of online meetings whilst mitigating the disadvantages, many schools will continue to offer some variations on a blended approach in order to be as inclusive as possible.


References:
[1]https://www.gov.uk/government/…
[2]https://educationendowmentfoun…
[3]https://educationendowmentfoun…
[4]https://webarchive.nationalarc…
[5]https://educationendowmentfoun…

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