“Excuse me, Miss, could I have a quick word?”
These words can produce a sinking feeling in any member of primary school staff.
Is it imperative that we know about the demise of Isla’s goldfish? Is it essential to be informed that Henry bashed his toe on the trampoline?
It may not always seem so to us, but to parents and young children, these conversations are hugely important. They are a key part of primary life, serving to make us distinct from secondary schools.
They are about more than trivial news. They are about reassurance and community feeling. But with the ease and regularity of this communication disrupted by social distancing and lockdowns, we have had to find new ways.
As leaders and teachers, we have had to maintain that contact and ensure that we know that our pupils, and their parents, are happy, safe and well. And now, as we prepare for reopening, it’s imperative to start thinking about how we can rebuild this.
Schools communicating with parents: The face of the school
During lockdown, weekly video call assemblies had a big impact on creating a feeling of cohesion and wellbeing. As we return to school, a face at the gate or in a doorway, waving and smiling, will reassure parents that teachers and leaders are still there.
Many members of SLT will have spent time on the school gate before social distancing restrictions. Now it is crucial. Children are back at school, but adults are still in lockdown. Seeing a friendly face every day can be helpful to everyone's wellbeing. At a time when anxieties are high, it can also be reassuring to see the adults who are going to be caring for your children.
If there is a concern, raised either by you or a parent, trying to carry out as many meetings via video call, as soon as possible, can really help. Sometimes a visual connection with a real person can help to settle a worried parent or calm a demanding one.
During lockdown, setting up regular video calls with parents of SEND children helped to make sure they were not forgotten. Maintaining this after children return to school, using family support workers, key TAs or Sendcos, will be of benefit to parents who are still subject to social restrictions and may find their children's behaviour at home challenging and frustrating. Parents need to know that we understand and are fully supportive.
Office staff are the unsung heroes of recent times. They are the first port of call for parents and are used to dealing with emotions. They are often a goldmine of local knowledge, and have information about families past and present, and may offer different interpretations of events. Office staff may know the real reason why a child has not returned to school as expected or is struggling to find the correct uniform.
They are the front line in dealing with parental anxieties and their measured response to myriad queries cannot be underestimated.
Emails and social media are vital in keeping parents up to date; they are also a means of communicating all that is positive in a challenging time. Twitter should be a celebration of children’s achievements, often supported by stressed parents.
Regular emails that express gratitude and remind parents that they can always communicate with school can work wonders. Emails to and from class teachers are worth their weight in gold. Having a dedicated email address for each class, with clear boundaries and expectations, means that everyone is kept in the loop quickly and easily.
There is no reason why this cannot be maintained when the children return, as it helps to build relationships between children and parents and takes some of the drama out of the morning drop-off.
Above all of this, your values must shine through. Primary schools are different to secondaries in their nurturing approach. It is expected that we are available to talk. Keep things positive and non-judgmental. It may have taken a lot for the parent to contact you and we are in unchartered waters when it comes to potential issues. Keep smiling and keep your face steady. Employ a sense of humour.
Remote contact will never be the same as a quick chat in the playground. But we must stay in touch, be approachable and helpful.
Leaders must also remember to be mindful of our staff and their mental health. Have clear boundaries, stick to safeguarding rules and make it clear that staff only communicate in normal working hours.
Then everyone will be prepared when we are once more back in the realm of “Just a quick word, Miss?”
Kim Bramley is deputy head at a primary school in Suffolk