One of the challenges facing schools today is how to successfully engage with the parents and guardians of their pupils and students. Gone are the days when parents were kept at arm’s length, when the school’s word on education was accepted as gospel and where parental support was unwavering, even in instances of draconian discipline and poor teaching.
Now that expectations are different and education has become more child-centred and holistic, how can schools tackle the challenge of fully engaging parents in the education of their child?
Where do schools tend to go wrong on parental engagement? And what sort of strategies can work?
Educational consultant and former prep school headmaster Peter Tait spoke to communications experts Karen Dempster and Justin Robbins about how to approach the task. They are the authors of a new book The Four Pillars of Parental Engagement: Empowering Schools to Connect Better with Parents and Pupils, which aims to guide schools through this minefield.
Peter Tait: Where should schools start if they want to improve their relationships with parents?
Justin: Schools often want to jump to solutions, such as introducing a weekly parent newsletter, when they see a need for action. But we suggest first taking a step back and evaluating the starting point. Make use of all readily available information, such as parent evening attendance statistics, parent open or response rates to requests, even pupil retention data. Then cast an ear out online, google the school and find out what people are saying about it. Finally, talk with parents, understand what is working well so you can build on this, and find out what is causing frustration and angst.
It’s important to dig deeper into complaints such as “we get too many emails” or “parent events are always at inconvenient times” and understand the real issues. It could be that every department is doing an end of week parents’ update, so each parent is only actually receiving five emails a week, but they are all arriving within a short space of time, thus creating the issue of perceived overload, which five emails a week certainly shouldn’t. Or maybe a parent had a bad experience of school themselves, which is a huge barrier to them then attending parent evenings.
“It’s important to dig deeper into complaints such as ‘we get too many emails’ or ‘parent events are always at inconvenient times’ and understand the real issues.”
When you understand the starting point, you can then determine where you want to get to and then plan how to get there, using the four pillars. Even if the destination is three years away, it’s important to set short term visible milestones to keep you on track and the team motivated.
Peter: Consistency of message is always a problem when delivered by different school team members — how do you ensure you achieve consistently high standards of communication with parents?
Justin: This is a real challenge for schools when messages to parents are written quickly and at short notice by busy school team members. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors can often get through and undermine even the most serious of messages.
One way we recommend is to have one or more school team members, who have both the skills and time as the “communication expert” to centrally manage distributed parent communications such as emails, letters and online messages. That way they each go through the same rigour and review to guarantee a consistently high standard. This person or persons might be a trained communicator if school budgets allow, or school team members who have additional training.
Where time and resources are potentially scarce, and communication is more decentralised, we recommend developing standards, guidelines and key messages for the school team to follow.
Peter: How do you engage the dis-engaged, those who feel that education is for school and not for the home?
Justin: The first of the four pillars is “knowledge” that aims to address exactly this point. It’s challenging to encourage a parent to actively support their child’s education if they don’t know the impact this might have. As we discuss in the book, from research published in 2008, the effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding two or three years to that student’s education. Quite simply parental engagement can make a huge difference to their child’s future. Once parents understand this, it becomes easier for them to actively engage and move on from believing education is just the responsibility of the school.
Peter: How do you ensure your school team are confident and effective communicators, including what and how they speak/write with/to parents?
Justin: Communication training is not a standard part of the teacher training curriculum. And yet, 85 per cent of our success is down to how well we communicate. It’s quite astonishing really, that such a critical area isn’t covered for those who are teaching the next generation.
“The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding two or three years to that student’s education.”
We encourage schools to offer every school team member a basic level of communication self-awareness to understand their own natural communication style. For example, if they are naturally quieter, they might need support for parent evenings to give a positive impression to parents. Similarly, for those who are more comfortable being outspoken, they might benefit from practising how to better listen and allow space in a conversation.
Peter: You state all schools should have someone in charge of all communications. Who should that person be and how should they ensure the messages and conversations fit in with the school culture?
Justin: Some schools, generally larger or private schools, they may be fortunate to have someone who has responsibility for marketing communications. As the majority don’t, it’s an additional, but very worthwhile task, that has to be part of someone’s day job. It doesn’t have to be one person and might actually be better if it isn’t. For example, someone to proofread and review proposed communication messages might not have the same skills or personality as someone who is engaging with teachers and parents every day.
If a school is following the approach to parental engagement that we discuss in the book, they will have a short term and long term plan with milestones along the way. This plan will reflect the school culture, which will in turn support the school vision. So, the critical element to ensuring that every communication fits with the school culture is to start with a planned approach to parental engagement.
Peter: What impact do you see technology having on parental engagement, going forward?
Karen Dempster: Technology offers many benefits to support parental engagement and we’ve seen a change in how this is being used by parents during Covid-19 when many had to learn quickly how to access online schooling, when they may previously have seen parent portals as optional.
While it’s good to understand the benefits of available technology, and to understand how this impacts parents’ expectations of what your school offers (to be perceived as modern and responsive), face to face is still a critical part of how we build human relationships. So, combine different ways of communicating, choosing the approach that best helps you to achieve the outcome.
Peter: Which areas of school life must parents know about, and which ones are nice to have?
Karen: Let’s consider that the elements of school life that parents need to know about can be categorised into three areas: urgent and important; important; or nice to know.
Urgent and important may relate to a school crisis or a child safety or behavioural issue. Important may include term dates, school contact information and how parents can support their children in their learning and development. Nice to know could include a social or charity event.
“The elements of school life that parents need to know about can be categorised into three areas: urgent and important; important; or nice to know.”
Recognising these three areas, schools can develop a simple guide so every member of their team can understand how to communicate for each category. This guide can include what should be communicated (headings), who should sign it off and how it is communicated, to ensure a consistent approach that creates the appropriate parent response.
Peter: How can schools avoid information overload with parents?
Karen: We recommend an “air traffic control” type approach to managing information. Simply develop a shared document that can be accessed by anyone who communicates with parents. This should include details about any planned information that is being sent to parents, including the date it will be sent, which parents will receive it, the outcome of the message, the school owner who will ensure it is sent and who should sign it off.
Those who access and update the document should be encouraged to check it regularly to ensure there are no points when parents will receive excessive information and there may be ways to combine some messages.
Peter: Is connecting with parents the same as connecting with pupils when it comes to messaging? How do you recommend the messages aren’t blurred or negated at home?
Karen: It is not the same but, of course, by connecting with parents you can work in partnership to positively influence pupils to better connect with school. This connection needs to be reinforced regularly to ensure the messages aren’t blurred or misunderstood at home.
We believe that pupils should be at the heart of every school interaction with parents and there can be a real benefit in communicating with parents and pupils together. The voice of pupils can be underestimated in helping schools to identify what pupils need from their parents to support their learning but also in identifying ways to help their parents to do this confidently, working with school.
Peter: How do you provide opportunities to hear parent ideas and feedback without opening the floodgates or making promises that can’t be kept?
Karen: We recognise there is a level of fear in “opening the floodgates” to parent ideas and feedback. However, if you keep them closed, they simply go underground, and you don’t hear them as well so can’t act on them.
It’s important to have a planned and sustained approach to listening to parents. This can be formal around key topics, such as pulse surveys or focus groups, or informal where teachers are trained to listen empathetically to parents or ideas are encouraged through online crowdsourcing in closed groups.
However you listen, ensure you demonstrate that you heard and either act or respond to what people say to build trust and encourage future feedback.