Good school communication with parents
When international schools around the world commence another academic year, attention inevitably turns to planning and finalising the perennial “back to school” activities and communications.
A school awakening from the long summer holiday can be likened to an aeroplane taking off, with the same intensity and acceleration from a standing start. It is an opportunity to set the tone for the year – but the parental view of a school’s effectiveness is often influenced by ineffective and incomplete communication.
As schools and organisations emerge from the pandemic, it is interesting to engage in a counterfactual, asking what changes schools would have made to their communication systems had they known ahead of time the impact the pandemic would have on schools.
“Every communication is an opportunity to make vision and mission visible.”
Sporting and performing arts events, coffee mornings and fundraisers are ways in which the school mission and values become visible and communicated to parents. The pandemic curtailed many of these traditional ways in which parents would normally be immersed in school life. As a result of this, simple, clear and consistent messaging has great potential for communicating the overall strategic vision and effectiveness of the school.
What follows are five principles of communication that are relevant for “back to school” and subsequent messaging during a busy school year.
Communication with parents as “your classroom”
Monitoring the kinds of inquiries from parents received by office staff via email and telephone on any given day is a useful starting point for spotting gaps or miscommunications of key messages. However, these often come from the most engaged parents. If we take the analogy of our parents as a classroom, what about those who never raise their hands?
Parents engage with the school based on their level of confidence and prior experience – both good and bad! If parents know that the school is there to support them, and care for their child, they are more likely to engage with the school over the course of the year. This includes asking for help or clarification.
Fitness for purpose
The pandemic called for a health check on all forms of communication. Schools adapted their communications because government or health authority advice was changing weekly or sometimes daily. At the ISF Academy in Hong Kong, although parents found written updates useful, we paired these with regular livestreams using YouTube or Microsoft Teams.
“Being transparent and explaining the rationale help bring parents along with the school.”
These replaced the usual face-to-face coffee mornings and allowed us to focus on specific points that needed clarification. They also put a human face to the decisions being made. Parents do not always agree with the changes made, but by being transparent and explaining the rationale it is possible to bring parents along with the school during a difficult period.
What you say and how you say it matters: we are all “the school”
Even during the best of times, stakeholders will distance themselves from decisions with which they disagree, or which they do not understand. For a school leader, hearing a parent use the depersonalising phrase “the school …” is a sign that the message hasn’t got through or been explained properly.
“Communication in schools should always be about ‘us’ rather than ‘them and us’.”
There is a clear need to narrate any strategy and personalise the steps taken by leadership and for whom they are made. School vision and mission statements often include the importance of home-school partnership. School communications are an opportunity to model this, and show that “the school” is made up of staff, students and parents working together as part of the same team. Communication in schools should always be about “us”, rather than “them and us”.
Communications as strategy
Alastair Campbell, former communications director for the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has written extensively about the importance of communications being fully embedded into strategy. He argues it is important to distinguish between the overall strategy and the tactics used to achieve the main goal. During the early stages of Covid 19, it was important not only to share what we knew, but also to distinguish this from what was still unknown. A good example from 2020 was the feverish speculation related to the possible cancellation of International Baccalaureate Diploma examinations. We set out for parents and students what the main possibilities were, but focused attention on continuing with high quality examination preparation until any official announcement was made.
Later on, implementing a hybrid learning model for students unable to return to campus was a short term tactical approach to meet our strategic goal of making learning as inclusive and as accessible as possible for all students.
Who is doing what?
The pandemic provided us with a perspective on the fitness for purpose of communications, but we also tasked different team members with communicating with different stakeholders. As principal, I took on the role of communication with parents, while a deputy principal focused on staff, and our directors of curriculum focused on the messages to students. The messages were strategically similar, but adjusted for the audience. This consistency of approach has endured. Larger schools that have dedicated communications and human resources teams need to think carefully about how whole-school messages are coordinated and communicated.
“‘The messenger’ will often be perceived differently by stakeholders.”
Choosing when to send a message from the head of school to provide reassurance or emphasis is important in balancing the operational and the strategic. Smaller schools often rely upon one or two senior staff for all communication, so it is important to be aware that “the messenger” will often be perceived differently by stakeholders, and negatively if the message is incomplete or incorrect.
In conclusion, while the pandemic has brought about greater awareness, communication has always been a key part of strategy. Every communication conveys key information, but it is also an opportunity to make vision and mission visible. “Why are we doing this?”, “how does this link back to our goals?” and “what is being communicated?” are questions to be asked by all of those responsible for communications in schools.
This article first appeared in the winter edition of International School magazine, published this week.