Overall, schools have reported that their engagement with home has improved during the pandemic. Encouragingly, this was also reflected in our annual survey of early years educators – which includes a large proportion of those working in primary schools.
More than nine out of 10 (93%) respondents felt parent engagement had become more important during the pandemic, and a similar number felt it was a priority for their school or setting.
So how can we build on this? Although the pandemic has clearly strengthened parent engagement, the reality is that many parents have barely been in their child’s school. It’s in sharp contrast to pre-March 2020, when face-to-face contact was an important aspect of building relationships.
Just think of those parent consultation evenings, corridors lined with books waiting to be viewed by families, halls filled with tables and chairs, and parents and carers waiting for their time slot (which was nearly always delayed!).
We’ve never gone through a shared experience like this and there’s an opportunity to not simply return to the pre-pandemic norm. No one wants change for change’s sake, but now seems a good time to reassess. Here are six things to consider as we start (hopefully) to establish a new normal…
Review pre-pandemic routines
A great place to start is to think carefully about what you did before Covid-19. What worked well, and what didn’t? What activities took place because ‘they’d always been done’? Think about what still feels relevant and worth continuing, and review any data or feedback.
In particular, think back to what you did for those families who were hesitant in engaging with school. What did you do then, and what can you do now to help them feel that your school is a safe and welcoming place? There may be families who faced barriers to engagement while their children were at home. What can you do to make connecting easier for them?
Reviewing also means removing things if you want to have space to take forward new approaches. A good example is video messages: many headteachers have found these a good way to engage families, so how can you ensure you have time to continue with them?
We’re still in it together
Three-quarters (77%) of respondents to our survey felt they’d reduced barriers to engagement for parents and carers in the past year. Dealing with something as awful as a pandemic brought us all together. However, to stay together, it’s important to understand what parents and carers have valued.
Ask them what they liked about how the school communicated with them and what they’d like to keep. Share ideas that you’re considering and get their views.
Something that’s been helpful for many families has been online parent/teacher meetings. One respondent to our survey captured this well: “All our parents’ meetings will be online from September onwards to allow parents to access them in their own time rather than getting out of work.”
They’re not alone. Our survey found that 30% of respondents planned to continue to do the same.
Most families have spent very little time in school compared to a normal school year; there have been no performances or shows, many have had to shield, and others have had to make do with drop-offs at the gate rather than in the playground.
So, it’s important to communicate that school is ‘open again’ and to welcome parents and carers in. Most importantly, be visible and available – for instance, having a member of SLT greeting families as they arrive or having the door to your office open with a clear message that you’re free to chat.
Additionally, school leaders must be clear on Covid-19 safety policies and share expectations from the start. Clarity will help people feel at ease, particularly if they’re anxious about coming into school.
Last year, many of the December festivities were limited, or needed to be changed at the last minute. Later in the school year, leavers’ assemblies had to be hastily transformed into films or open-air events on the field.
Unpredictability has been the norm, with everyone coping brilliantly, but what can school leaders formalise? What processes can be put in place to make implementing last-minute changes easier? And how will leaders communicate swiftly and clearly to their full staff team?
Also, what can be done ahead of time to reduce the risk of disruption? For instance, should winter school performances have more limited numbers? Would smaller, class-based performances be a better option?
Support for staff
Another clear message from our survey was the need for greater access to professional development for staff to support them in engaging with parents and carers. Eighty-seven per cent were keen to access CPD around supporting families and 91% recognised the need for CPD linked to diversity and inclusion.
Autumn seems an ideal time to discuss this with staff as goals are set for the year. The necessity of connecting with families at home may have highlighted the benefits of training around engaging with parents and carers. Staff have acquired considerable experience but need time to reflect on this and build it into their professional practice.
Our research found some interesting trends in the tools used to communicate with parents and how they changed during the pandemic and, most interestingly, what schools and settings were planning to do next.
The data suggested that at least some were going to increase the variety of communication approaches they used including video messages, online parents’ evenings and one-to-one video calls.
This is positive but does bring more complexity to communications. Involve teachers and office staff to capture their insight and experiences before making decisions. What creates lots of extra work? What receives the best response?
‘Hybrid’ seems to be a much-used word these days as we adjust to new ways of living and working, and perhaps it’s best the word for the new school year. School leaders need to combine what was good before the pandemic with everything positive we’ve learnt during it.
What you can do
- Parent evenings – it’s tempting to think about being just online or just face to face. However, a combination might well be the best bet: one size doesn’t fit all.
- Engaging families requires regular attention – find time to review how parents and carers are engaging with the school. Recognise that there will be things that may need to be tweaked or developed, and keep them under review for the rest of the school year.
- Build on staff experience with CPD – consider introducing training about parental engagement for your team. Developing understanding and connection in the school community will strengthen your partnership with families.
- Reflect on how available you and your SLT team are – and on how approachable you seem. Your door may be open, and you may be available, but does every parent and carer feel they can approach you?
Ben Case is education advisor for Tapestry and the Foundation Stage Forum. He was previously a primary school teacher for more than 10 years.