We have come a long way since I arrived at Wilsden Primary School five years ago.
As in every school, the pandemic hit us badly, forcing us to develop our practices to benefit the children in our care.
Chief among these developments has been a particular area of continued improvement - how to maximise parents and carer engagement.
The more that parents and carers are engaged in the education process, the more likely it is that children will succeed, and we felt increasingly conscious that there was more we could do to encourage this involvement.
Like all schools we have encountered pitfalls when it comes to communication with parents, and we have spent a great deal of time using a variety of methods, across all sorts of platforms, to ensure all parents are reached, regardless of their varying circumstances.
Being surrounded by a wonderful, supportive community, with parents willing to go the extra mile for their children, we realised it was up to us to push ourselves to make community engagement even better.
Do any schools still rely on paper letters to communicate with families? Our experience was that letters didn’t reach parents and reply slips never made it back to school. We were stuck in a grey area of communication, which just wasn’t working.
To try to combat this, we dabbled in switching to a text service. It felt like a good idea at first, but we found we were just increasingly the amount of information going out, with no result.
Parents were receiving several texts a day with various bits of information but these were often missed, misinterpreted or lost, resulting in many feeling frustrated and disconnected from the school.
A eureka moment happened when we introduced our newsletter system, called ‘Update’, which we disseminated by email, and uploaded to social media and the website. We also moved all school forms, such as permission slips requiring signatures, to an electronic system.
This meant that, as parents signed them online, we had live, real-time updates on responses.
The pandemic forced us to look at more creative ways of working to maintain effective communications. We moved to more interactive versions of Update, which included video messaging so that parents and carers could see us.
At a time when personal interactions were minimised for public health reasons, we worked on the basis that emotions played a huge part in how people retain information. Research has shown that video content is more accessible and memorable for those watching than other means of engagement.
The incorporation of video conferencing services was a gamechanger for the school throughout COVID. This included performing a virtual Nativity play, and some parent and carer meetings were moved online, including webinars and Facebook Lives.
A forum for discussion
More recently, we have introduced ‘The Parent Forum’ – a group of parents who meet with me and other staff, at least half-termly. The members represent our community generally and deliver messages from parents, carers and families on all aspects of school life.
We have found this a great way of getting a general consensus from the community.
We have continued many of these practices which have proven a huge success, mainly as they support parents who would otherwise be working when these meetings were taking place.
Improved communication saw a significant increase in parental involvement across all events, with more parents attending and many volunteering their time. This included breakfast events, such as our ‘French breakfast’ and assemblies, where they could celebrate the children’s achievements regularly.
Parents became happier to speak to the school, and as a result, had more information about their children’s learning, enabling them to get more involved.
Some of our biggest events included Remembrance Day and our Christmas gift drive for the charity CLIC Sargent. Parents banded together for the gift drive at the end of 2021, as they did in 2020 when families donated hundreds of presents to children in local hospitals.
The community spirit we felt during this time was truly uplifting and we knew we had started something incredible by engaging with the local community.
Getting into the groove
It is thanks to our office staff that these changes have been possible. They were the ones who experimented with different communication methods, and it was often a pain to keep switching. Getting them onboard was vital.
The Update now goes out every Sunday morning, and the stats show that it is viewed a lot - a huge win after all the work that went into finding the right way to engage with families.
It was a testament to our efforts this year when we were commended for our work and awarded with the Leading Parent Partnership Award (LPPA) - a nationally recognised accreditation supporting schools who deliver effective parental engagement. It provides schools with a valuable framework for continued improvement.
LLP commented in their report that Wilsden Primary demonstrated “many strengths” with regard to parent partnership and that its communication methods were reported to be “effective and really embrace and utilise modern technology”.
Ultimately, parental engagement is important – we know this. But so is looking after the environment and saving money. The various measures we have put in place, including The Update, have allowed us to tackle all three by saving on paper, wastage and the cost of producing the newsletter.
With a little trial and tribulation, we have managed to find our groove and positively engage the community as a whole.
The saying “it takes a village” is very pertinent. I believe the involvement of the community contributes to the making of a great school and, ultimately, to improving the success of its students.
What’s the context of the school and its community?
Wilsden Primary School sits in the small village of Wilsden, in West Bradford. It has a wide catchment area, and a diverse roll of just over 300 children. It is by no means a disadvantaged area, with a very small proportion of Pupil Premium children.
Our local community is close-knit and it really supports the school, whether it’s donations from shops, money, or spare laptops in lockdown. We are currently involved in a Linking Schools Project with a local care home.
Wilsden is part of the Focus-Trust, which is based in the Northwest of England and West Yorkshire and seeks to provide great schools at the heart of communities where children thrive, achieve and succeed.
We aim to provide an engaging and challenging learning environment where children are happy and confidently explore the world around them.
We encourage and empower them to challenge the norm and to ask questions, to aim and climb high and above all else to shine.
To realise this, school life is based around key aims and values including: the happiness of children, families and staff; raising aspirations; the praise and celebration of the achievements of everyone; and co-operation, collaboration and teamwork.
As a result, earlier this year we were awarded the Leading Parent Partnership Award, for a period of three years.
Andrew Chadwick is head of Wilsden Primary School, Bradford