Headteachers know better than anyone that good relations with parents and carers are a vital ingredient for any successful school. If parents and carers know what their child is doing at school and they can easily see their progress and homework tasks, then it is far more likely that they will play an active role in their learning.
So, knowing this, why do so many schools still struggle to engage families?
Fragmented messaging seems to be one of the reasons; use a myriad of channels and approaches to communicate with parents and communications can break down.
This is certainly one of the key features highlighted in our recent research. Firefy and ImpactEd worked together to create an in-depth report, How well are schools helping parents to support their child’s learning?, which was based on a survey of more than 2,000 teachers and parents.
One of the clear messages that emerged from the research was how important it is for schools to establish exactly what it is that parents want to be communicated about their children’s learning.
Schools can build a detailed picture of their parents’ needs by carrying out carefully planned and designed research, being sure to follow some important ground rules to ensure that such research delivers accurate, actionable insights.
So, what steps should you take to create research that will give you the information you need to make parents and carers true partners in children’s learning?
Work out the aim of your research
The methods you use to engage with parents and carers will be informed by your objectives. If, for example, you want to understand which methods of communication parents/carers prefer, a survey across the school could be the most appropriate way to reach as many parents as possible. Focus groups or interviews, meanwhile, with a smaller, representative group might be a better way of getting the rich insights and detail you need to explore the experiences of parents/carers of Key Stage 2 pupils in supporting home learning.
Leave your assumptions behind
Try to avoid making assumptions when designing your research tools, such as survey questions or interview questions, and provide opportunities for parents/carers to provide their own opinions to better understand their needs. As well as having pre-populated answer options that respondents can select, ensure that your surveys include space for parents to select an ‘other’ option, with open text boxes that will enable you to gather more qualitative detail and perspectives that you may not have considered. Also, when talking to parents and carers, make sure you summarise and check your precise understanding of the points they make. For example, “My understanding from what you’ve just said is…. Is this correct?”
Adapt to parents’ needs
Your parents’ needs are as varied and diverse as your pupils, so you need to ensure that you reach a representative sample of parents/carers. You can achieve this through following a range of inclusive practices, such as advertising your survey widely and through different methods to ensure that a wide variety of parents are aware that they can take part, and adapting to their lifestyles. For example, if you are running a focus group, offer parents a choice of different times of day to participate in an interview, via phone calls, in-person or online. Also, check that your research samples are representative against any data that you already have and try to address any gaps to ensure a representative group of voices are heard.
Give them feedback
Let your parents and carers know that their time and input isn’t going to waste and that it will ultimately support the school’s learning partnership with them. Make a point of thanking them for giving their time and make sure they know how you will be following up on the findings of your research. Sharing a summary of your findings and actions on the school website, parent portal or newsletter will show them that you value their help. This will also help to encourage their future engagement in research.
Reflect on your current practices
Knowing where you are and where you’ve been are important factors when setting out on the next stage of your journey of improving parental engagement. The following suggestions and questions will help you to reflect on your current parental engagement approaches practices. You can use them as starting points for discussions at your school on how to make improvements:
- Understand them. Find out their expectations – and barriers. This will help you to reach parents and carers in ways that are more likely to get them to engage with their child’s learning. If you have a parent group, use their knowledge and influence to help drive engagement. And when you have a new cohort of parents make sure they understand the school’s expectations around communications and supporting their child’s learning.
- Identify barriers. These are starting points to developing better communication channels and engagement plans rather than insurmountable barriers. Make a plan for families who are struggling to engage and sell parents the benefits of engaging. Discuss as a staff team and feed these discussions into your communication and engagement plans.
- Be creative with tech. Use technology in ways that can help break down barriers and make it easier for parents/carers to understand the what, why and how of supporting their children’s learning. Can you find one delivery method that can be equally accessed by all, or do you need to plan for several delivery methods? Parents like email - our research found it was their preferred communication method - but it is less popular with teachers. Offer a generic school address, or year group address, and manage expectations about how often that will be monitored. Make sure parents can find relevant contact details easily.
- Speak plainly. Use plain English and avoid jargon, academic language, or Ofsted inspired terminology. Not all parents/carers will have the same language skills, so identify ways to make communications accessible to everyone. Do you separate your communications for pastoral, administration and learning support issues? Can they be sent out using different methods?
Simon Hay is co-founder and CEO at Firefly, the school engagement platform. Holly Waddell is Impact Partnerships Manager at ImpactEd, a social enterprise that supports schools and education organisations.