- The research suggests that parents and schools can have different preferences when it comes to methods of communication.
- It is important that the differences are taken into account and are built into a school’s communication plan.
- School leaders should reflect on the communication methods they use, listen to parents and clarify their goals and means to achieve them.
The social media platforms that have proliferated over the past decade have been good at generating lots of heat, and perhaps a little less light, in many areas of our lives. But when it comes to school communications, social media is one of schools’ favourite methods for communicating with parents. That was one of our discoveries when we carried out a large-scale research project looking into the state of parental engagement today from both the schools’ and the parents’ perspectives.
The result was our in-depth research report, How well are schools helping parents to support their child’s learning? Based on findings from a survey of 2000 teachers and parents, the report focuses on parental engagement with teaching and learning, rather than parental engagement linked to operational matters such as payments, school trips, and reporting absences. Each section of the report features recommendations, suggestions and questions that should be seen as starting points for further reflection within school staff teams and leadership groups.
The top methods
We surveyed 1000 parents and 1000 teachers for the research. When parents were asked to pick their preferred methods of communication from schools, traditional methods still held firm. Email was the top option, with face-to-face, online portals, phone and text also among the most popular. Emails give parents some measure of control over how and when they engage, without becoming as formal as a letter. However, they add a level of formality that text and other methods such as social media do not.
Social media is a much more popular option with the schools we surveyed; although email was still in the top three of preferred methods, social media was just as popular, alongside technologies such as parent portals. This may reflect the fact that schools see value in a wide range of communication methods and that email was less popular than with parents as it could be seen as more time consuming and creating workload.
Although social media is seen by parents as a less important means of communicating with schools, it does play a vital part in ‘school gate’ type exchanges. It’s a useful form of social bonding which many parents find useful, but it does have wider implications for schools which will have no control over what is said or shared through these forums. Schools should consider the implications of this and look at what resources are available to manage social media interactions and other communication methods.
Planning for engagement
In broader terms, our findings highlight the importance of schools listening closely to parents’ communication needs, especially as they are keen to engage more in their child’s learning and school life. This is an area where technology could provide a valuable contribution. Technology is increasingly being used to either drive engagement or support it, alongside more traditional methods. Understandably, there is some concern about reliability and ease of use, as well as accessibility.
So, school communications plans need to include parental engagement and to demonstrate a long-term commitment to understanding parents’ needs. Schools can reflect on their parental communications practice by asking themselves a series of questions. You can find these in the ‘Questionnaire – Communications plan’ in the Toolkit.
The local context is vitally important when finding the best ways to help parents engage in their child’s learning. What follows are some of the recommendations that our survey and interviews brought to light.
These take the forms of questions and suggestions, and should be used to reflect on your current practice and as starting points for discussions on how to improve engagement moving forward:
It is easy to just see barriers to engagement, but they should not be seen as insurmountable roadblocks, they should be seen as the starting points to developing better communication channels and engagement plans.
- Make a plan for families who are struggling to engage.
- Head into the community and sell parents the benefits of engaging.
- As a staff team, discuss and address any unconscious bias around parents and how they engage in their child’s learning. Use these discussions to feed into your communication and engagement plans.
Each parent will be different, but knowing your parents will help you to reach them in ways that are more likely to get them to engage with their child’s learning.
- Talk to parents about what their expectations are.
- Find out what they are struggling with, or what their barriers are.
Parent groups are vital for the smooth running of a school, so use their knowledge and influence to help drive engagement. Remember, when children start at primary or secondary school, you also have a cohort of ‘new parents’ who need to understand the school’s expectations around communications and supporting their child’s learning.
Look closely and critically at the communication methods you are using.
- Employ technology in ways that can help break down barriers and make it easier for parents to understand the what, why and how of supporting their children’s learning.
- Can you find one delivery method that can be equally accessed by all, or do you need to plan for several delivery methods?
- Email is popular with parents, but not with teachers. Offer a generic school address, or year group address, and manage expectations about how often that will be monitored.
- Make sure parents can find relevant contact details easily.
- Can parents choose to have all the information sent out or made available in one place, for ease of access, such as an online parent portal?
- To help make the best use of your website, approach a diverse group of parents to review it and give their feedback. Ensure that you act on their ideas and explain the changes you’ve made.
Not all parents will have the same language skills, and some will have English as an additional language, so identify ways to make communications accessible to everyone.
- Use plain English and avoid jargon, academic language, or Ofsted-inspired terminology.
- Do you separate your communications for pastoral, administration and learning support issues? Can they be sent out using different methods?
Be clear about what your objectives are. What do you mean by ‘supporting children’s learning’? Do you mean at home with homework, with life skills, with encouragement for the work they do in school, or something else? Ambiguity means that parents may have different expectations from teachers and even senior leaders. Think about how you assess whether parents have a full understanding of what you are trying to achieve with your communication. Review what percentage of your school communications with parents are about their child’s learning, and specifically how parents can offer support to their child.
At the centre of better parental engagement is quality communication, in which the proposed message is understood by the receiving group. For schools, if the purpose of communication with parents is to help them support their children’s learning, it is necessary that everyone understands what that means and what it entails. If the message is unclear, or both parents and teachers expect or perceive the end goals to be different from each other, then schools will never be entirely satisfied with the engagement.
The overall message from our research is positive, but within that positivity there lie many areas ripe for improvement, and a need for best practice suited to the local context to become consistently applied throughout schools.
- How well are schools helping parents to support their child’s learning?, Firefly: https://fireflylearning.com/parent-engagement-free-report/
Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
About the author
Simon Hay is co-founder and CEO at Firefly, the school engagement platform. www.fireflylearning.com