Should schools keep online parents’ evenings?

The flexibility that comes with online parents’ evenings is significant, says Liz Laybourn, head at Burgess Hill Girls

Parents’ evenings have long sent a shudder of midweek panic through busy families. To get there, they often have to juggle two full-time jobs, rush hour traffic, looking after other family members and getting the evening meal on the table with meeting 10 different teachers in a busy hall.

Prior to the pandemic, I would often wonder how I could improve on this situation as I walked around the school hall on those wet and windy Tuesday nights, nodding and chatting to parents racing in with seconds to spare and madly trying to locate the maths teacher – or queuing patiently when a particularly chatty family caused a meeting to overrun.

And then the pandemic hit and everything stopped – including parents’ evenings. When we realised Covid was not going away any time soon, it became clear we were going to have to do things differently. One of the most important aspects of Burgess Hill Girls is communication and our relationships with parents so we very quickly started hunting for an online system that would help us provide parents with excellent quality feedback on their daughters’ academic progress.

The first time we held parents’ evenings remotely, we wondered how they would be received. Would parents feel short-changed that they had not been able to meet the teachers face-to-face? Would teachers manage to work within the time frames, with strict appointments set for so many families to adhere to?

In fact, the system was very simple to use, and it became perfectly clear very quickly that there were significant benefits along with an incredible flexibility.

Parents could do the meetings from their own home and not have to travel into school and await sessions – in fact, parents could be anywhere as long as they had the link. Meeting slots could be flexible so that if one parent was home late, that family could meet later and vice versa. For staff, they could do the whole thing at their kitchen table and not have to wait considerable time for their last parent who was still working their way around the hall meeting other staff. Meetings became focused, uninterrupted and specific to the individual child.

We have also seen a boost in attendance since we have gone online, and it has made everything more trackable too

We soon began to get very positive feedback from parents. They loved the flexibility which meant that if they had more than one child both parents could be involved whereas in-person ones often meant only one could attend. Where we had been concerned that the technology might not be manageable for some parents, in fact most had become familiar with all sorts of online platforms by this stage and were easily skilled enough to cope.

The only concern from both sides has been that sometimes the timer might cut someone off mid-sentence, but I think everyone has adapted to that and learnt to be completely on topic at all times! We always say that parents’ evenings are not for surprises either so if there was any issue that needed longer to go over, we would arrange a face-to-face meeting.

Of course, for our boarders, now overseas parents can access the system. In the past guardians or agents would have attended parents’ evenings which, whilst acceptable, did mean that the parents were not receiving the same personal input and overview of their daughter as domestic parents.

We have also seen a boost in attendance since we have gone online, and it has made everything more trackable too. Those who have not signed up to attend can be followed up whereas in the past we would have no idea of who had not attended until after the event.

Please don’t get me wrong – we still want to meet with parents face-to-face to talk through pupils’ progress and we are now implementing a system which offers families one face-to-face and one online parents’ evening a year. We believe this hybrid approach, with technology threaded through the fabric of how we deliver good schooling, offers the best of all worlds.

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