The questions that teachers never seem keen to answer

You turn up for parents’ evening full of questions about your child. But sometimes the teacher seems to mumble or fudge rather than give you a straight reply. Here are truthful answers to some common questions ...

I want to ask how my child is doing in relation to her classmates. My question makes teachers look very uncomfortable.

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 whom we teachers also feel a 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 (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.

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, rather than 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, it’s partly a feasibility thing: most secondary school teachers will see hundreds of students each week, often for less than an hour and 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, it’s going to take me a little longer ...

What do these ‘levels’ mean and what do they tell me about how my child is doing?

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 judgment considering all their work over the previous year, and based on reasonable expectations of achievement based on the national profile. They were never intended either to be used to mark individual pieces of work, or to provide some sort of measurement of endlessly rising linear progression. Unfortunately, Ofsted’s limitless demands for numbers on spreadsheets have 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, and you’ll understand why the abolition of levels last year was one of the few things Michael Gove did which didn’t arouse universal derision. Unfortunately, he 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 essence of clarity.

Why hasn’t my son reached his target level in some subjects, when he works really hard and is very 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 suggests he has an honest teacher who’ll be able to give you decent feedback.

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.

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 Tom’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 your child having to do the group’s presentation on the similarities between the Stasi and Ofsted on their 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, 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.