Communication is key

Two projects I undertook last year, involving parents of primary and secondary school children, highlighted just how important pro-active communication could be in building a positive relationship between parents and school. From newsletters to websites, homework to playground chats, communication is a “whole school” activity.

In this electronic age there is no shortage of “experts” striving to identify the “next big thing”, but do we spend enough time listening to the very people we deliberate so much about communicating with?

The Internet has become part of our everyday life. Over the last ten years, school websites have moved from being a glorified marketing brochure to a platform for the whole school community. The parents I’ve spoken with consistently identify school websites and newsletters as two sources of information that tell them about the “real” school; its clubs, curriculum, achievements and challenges.

The manner in which school transport, uniform consultations and inset days are communicated to parents are even more important than the glossy finish of a brochure. The set-piece ‘photo with the Head’ has become old-hat, but the visit of an Olympic athlete, the receipt of an award from the local Council and dare I say it, and the outcome of an Ofsted inspection is the messages that both parents and prospective parents are consistently drawn to.

Sarah Tucker’s book Playground Mafia shone a comedic, not to mention highly informative spot-light, on the dynamic of parent politics. But the truth remains that parent talk! The very best of Heads, brochures and exam results, count for nothing in that face of the most baseless, unsubstantiated, playground rumours.

So what can schools do? Personally, I think it’s time to face this head on – and that’s exactly what the most successful, highly subscribed schools are doing. They don’t just want to know what parents are saying; they want to set the agenda.

Why not have a chat with the parents about those transposed ‘b’s and d’s’, that inappropriate footwear and the fact that from February 2004 the UK’s accession to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights meant that a necktie could longer be used as an instrument of Capital punishment. Pro-activity is the key, and the same can be said about the other great bugbear – homework.

A robust marking policy for homework benefits parents, pupils and teachers alike. Identifying strengths and weaknesses in work underpins an effective personalised learning strategy, as well as providing the child and their family with a focus for improvement. A “no surprises” approach should mean that parents, pupils and teachers know where they are before Parents Evening, setting expectations and focusing conversations on strategies to drive improvement. Parents might not welcome the prognosis. However, in my experience, the majority of parents articulate the view that knowledge of their child’s progress is an essential element of “being informed”.

There will always be a constituency of opinion who hold that no school sets the right amount of homework. Defending homework policies and articulating the pedagogical principles that underpin them is an article for another time, but knowing where extra efforts can be made is an entirely reasonable approach, supporting the principle of learning continuing outside of the classroom.

School admin staff are not the Reuters News Agency. But schools should be conscious of the fact that communication is becoming like the Old West – there is always somebody quicker. Parents want to exercise “choice” even if Admissions Officers would rather they exercised “preference”.

Rising birth rates can no longer guarantee full school roll’s, whether we have a shortage of school places or not. Recruiting pupils, whether they want to bet there or not, is hardly aspirational. There will always be some schools more sought after than others and while educational achievement will always be the stand out feature, the ability to engage with the parent body through effective, pro-active and informative communication has never been more important.