Information as a way to Engagement

It makes sense that a creative and continued interest from parents in their children’s class learning offers the best long-term educational outcomes. This interest in individual personal development naturally extends to the group and how best it can be supported through engagement.

When parents are engaged, school becomes a higher priority for pupils. Experience shows that when links are good, pastoral care and quality discipline flows from such positive relationships, preparation for exams is more focused and homework is more likely to be finished on time.

What many seem to overlook is that the secret to engagement lies in one key action and that is - making people aware of what is happening. Information is key to awareness! All else fails if people are not kept up to date and for better engagement to occur with parents of children in all year groups, it takes initiative on the part of the school. Clear and repeated messages cannot be emphasized enough.

Quite often the mistake is made where children themselves are expected to be the mediators in the link between home and school. Letters or notes sent home are invariably lost, forgotten or left buried in the bottom of a school bag.

Entering the mind of the pupils and particularly from the perspective of many who are not showing interest, home and school have come to be seen as very different experiences with contrasting values at play.

Many associate ‘home’ with support, care and freedom while 'school' is often associated with rules and regulations, structured time and mixing with other students. Pupils are not disposed to informing their parents of what they did at school during the day. Neither do parents always feel equipped to ask their own children about how they got on in school during the day, especially if they do not feel able to deal with the classroom subject matter.

Aside the learning material which is in itself a serious issue and obstacle to engagement, without knowing what is going on in terms of events and activities, there is little chance of any real engagement.

Sharon, the mother of an 11 year-old had this to say of her primary school - "I missed the choir concert due to a previous commitment I had made all because I didn’t receive a reminder the previous week. I remember being distracted when Jenny told me but needless to say she never mentioned it again until I had already scheduled my Thursday appointment."

In their busy lives, whatever that contains, parents expect to be told what is happening, rather than to find out by chance or worse, not find out at all!

Between September 2009 and March 2010, Inspectors from Ofsted (The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) visited 47 schools in England with the aim of evaluating the effectiveness of the partnership between parents and schools. The schools varied in size, geographical location and socio-economic circumstances. Amongst the findings were these interesting facts:

· In the best cases seen, joint working between the home and the school led to much better outcomes for pupils; in particular, this helped pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities, those with low attendance or who were potentially vulnerable in other ways.

· All the schools visited were using, or experimenting with, new technology in their communications with parents. Such work complemented more traditional methods such as face-to-face meetings and paper-based communication.

· Seven of the 47 schools visited had parent councils or forums. These provided helpful routes for parents to raise issues or contribute to policy development on the initiative of the school but such councils did not represent all parents fully.

As required by law, all the schools had produced prospectuses. These were often available online and had the particular focus of presenting information to new or prospective parents.

These provided some general information about the curriculum and teaching, but did not contain a lot about what was happening in the day to day life of the school or how parents could help to promote learning. More prominently highlighted were such things as school rules and expectations about behaviour practices and uniform.

The school newsletter was another production, which appeared in electronic as well as printed formats. Their content and frequency varied considerably but they generally provided useful information such as events and dates, celebrated successes, reminders about uniform, road safety and school photographs.

Few of the schools used newsletters to explain aspects of the curriculum to parents or current issues about learning.

All the schools were using, or experimenting with, new technology in their communications with parents. Paper-based communications had been the norm and where required, face-to-face meetings offered the chance to directly engage with parents. The newer methods used included: sending general or individual messages to parents by text, using email to contact parents and inviting parents to email staff, using digital media to record pupils’ work and using the school website to gain access to information.

The schools were at different stages in developing their use of such technology, with varied practice and success. In the best examples, individual text messages or emails from schools enabled parents to understand issues quickly and deal with them. This was appreciated by working parents or those unable to attend school meetings on a regular basis.

General text messages which could be sent quickly, for example about cancelled or changed sports events, were also popular among the parents surveyed. In some schools, text messages were also used to inform parents of instances of absence or lateness.

Nearly a decade later and we know that technology has since moved on with a lot of new developments. Many schools now use an ‘app’ to send messages, letters from the principal or departments and reports or instructions. This is all done quickly and directly in real time. Others record absences and gain access to timetables.

We now know too that parents will not be inclined to visit the school website simply because of the effort required. It takes a certain level of interest that is needed to complete such an action. In an era where people use their smart phones daily for most communications, they almost expect to be ‘spoon-fed,’ and be supplied with information as it is relevant to them.

The success of the mobile app is based upon the fact that it is right there on the parent's device and in their hand or pocket.

Smart phone users have become used to receiving messages and notifications with on screen alerts, reminders and prompts. It could be argued that this method of reaching parents in today’s world is the single most powerful one in tackling indifference, given the pro-active nature of ‘pushing a notification out.’

A well-timed reminder is all it takes - appearing as an alert on the holder’s mobile device and the event has registered. A simple solution with massive benefits for everyone, school and parents alike.

The Ofsted Publication referred to here is available at www.ofsted.gov.uk/publications/100044

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