COVID-19 has changed the way we think about education, and opened to question many long-held practices. Parents’ evenings are one such thing but, explains Janet Hayward, there is an innovative new approach ready and waiting for schools willing to try something different…

It’s no breaking news that the COVID-19 Pandemic has forced schools to work differently.

Personally, as the executive headteacher of two schools, considering ever changing risk assessments to how much blue roll and PPE should be in the stock cupboard has been a tiresome diversion from our core business.

That being said, some different ways of working have emerged and without doubt been beneficial to children, parents and teachers. One great example of this is the change in approach to parents’ evenings.

During a 30+ year career as an educator, I know that parents’ evenings at my schools have always been generally well received, however, (and I couldn’t entirely put my finger on why) I felt that something was missing…

Set your mind back to January 2020, just as the rumbles of the Covid-19 pandemic were started for be heard, I attended the Annual Whole Education Conference in London.

(Whole Education was founded as a national network in 2010, emerging from the RSA’s Charter for 21st Century Education. The dynamic network consists of over 500 schools and partners committed to learning from and with each other to deliver a ‘whole education’)

The highlight of the conference for me was to sit in on a workshop led by Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer for EL Education in the States. The focus of the workshop was on ‘student-led conferences’, their potential and how Berger had led them himself as a practitioner.

So, in a nutshell: students as young as five invite their chosen adult into school to reflect on their own learning. He explained how they had worked through inspiring stories of individual children and their families and how the conferences had proven powerful and successful with families having a far greater understanding of what and how their child had been learning and how they could best support them at home.

The conferences had strengthened relationships between home and school and students saw themselves as leaders of their own learning, proud of what they had achieved and motivated to improve and further reflect on their own learning.

The real difference between this and our traditional parents’ evenings then is that the child takes the ownership of their own learning as opposed to it being all about the teacher and their view. From a teacher perspective this is a winner-winner outcome. Less teacher workload and more empowered learners!

Listening to this made me question how we could adopt this approach in my own settings without it feeling like another thing on the ‘to do’ list for parents and teachers. Taking away the traditional after-school parents’ evening did not feel like an option as that was the way things had always been….

Fast forward eight weeks. Covid -19 meant that the world was in a way it had never been before. The way things had always been, challenged.

In June 2020 when we returned to school, teachers took time with their children individually to reflect on their learning over the lockdown period:

  • What had gone well?
  • What could have been better?
  • What had they learnt about themselves?
  • What would they like to carry forward from this time?
  • What were their next steps for learning?

The answers to these questions and many more were mind-mapped by each individual child  and shared with parents via a Zoom call at home, and the child and teacher in school.

Crucially, the call was led by the child, as outlined by Ron Berger. Conferences happened during the school day, taking 10 minutes.

The outcome? Unprecedented success!

Feedback from the teachers’ feedback survey:

  • Parental attendance was excellent.
  • Children really enjoyed the preparation and execution of the call.
  • Relationships were further improved with parents seeing their children in their school setting talking about learning in an authentic way.
  • Many parents said: “I’m glad you are doing this”, “We could come because it’s a short time slot and we didn’t need to travel”.
  • It gives a reason for the children’s work – a performance of understanding, integral to the learning and teaching experience.
  • Discussing with parents how to support at home – continuous learning – parents taking responsibility, as well as the child.
  • Genuine 1:1 time with the child, discussing home and learning.

And many children said: “We loved sharing our learning with our parents in this way, please can we do it again?”

The conferences are now led by children half-termly; key learning for us along the way has been to:

  • Ensure beforehand that the parent will be there; handwritten invitations from children seal the deal.
  • The child is well prepared with their mind-map and ready to lead and talk about what’s next for them.
  • The conference always begins with what was discussed at the last conference.

Parents, staff and teachers all agree that child-led conferences, celebrating learning during the school day and seen as integral to the learning experience are now our ‘norm’, whilst after school parents’ evenings are very much a ‘pre-COVID thing’. 

Without doubt, as is the ambition of our new curriculum in Wales, our ‘child-led learning celebrations’ are enabling our children to be ambitious, capable learners – what’s not to like?