Like every secondary school, Aston University Engineering Academy (AUEA) in central Birmingham has its fences and additional security.
But for many parents, the walls around a school are often more than just physical. They can also be practical, emotional – and psychological.
Once their children get to secondary school, the close links parents have had with education at the primary level, forged through regular contact with class teachers, events and at the school gate during drop-off and pick-up times, often dissolve.
Add in the parents’ own experiences of secondary school, which may not have been totally positive, and you have a recipe for poor parental engagement.
You would think that Covid would have exacerbated these issues, but in fact it has had a positive impact for us when it comes to communication and engagement with our families.
Our parents told us during the last lockdown that they felt closer to our school when we were closed than when we were open.
It’s not that we were doing a bad job before, but the pandemic forced us to look again at what made good parental engagement.
This reappraisal was partly driven by our experiences as parents of primary-age children.
When the pandemic struck, I found myself experiencing even closer engagement with my children’s primary education, like so many other parents, and it made me realise just how good many primary schools are at engaging with their families and why we at AUEA need to be "more primary" in our approach to parental engagement.
Here’s what worked for us:
1. Reducing the formality and making it personal
There will always be a time and a place for the formal letter but for the vast majority of our communications with home, including updates and weekly letters, an informal style is the rule.
We replaced "yours sincerely" with the less formal "best wishes" or "kind regards". We’ve also dropped surnames when writing to parents, addressing them using their first names.
It’s a small change but one that sets the tone immediately as more friendly and welcoming when engaging with parents.
2. Removing the barrier of print and putting a face to a name
Following on from this, we recognised that for many families, a letter can be intimidating, especially if English is your second language.
As such we have replaced or replicated our update letters with video messages that we email to parents and share on our YouTube channel and our website.
We took a relaxed approach to the videos, filming them from school, our homes and even our gardens. It meant that all our parents had the same access to information.
It also made them feel more personally connected to our school leaders.
3. Making the most of technology
Technology means that we can visit every child and parent at home if necessary. During lockdown, we brought in virtual parent evenings and parent meetings and this ability to meet families in their own homes made it feel much more personal and meaningful, helping us to forge closer relationships. We’ll carry on with this approach for the foreseeable future.
4. Remove the bottleneck of school reception
Our school reception closed during the pandemic – a development that suddenly removed a major frustration for parents who saw it as a barrier that prevented them from contacting teachers directly. Reception is back in action now, but they are handling 50 per cent fewer direct calls because parents are choosing to go direct to members of staff, who now have their own direct numbers.
This was made possible by introducing Microsoft Teams virtual telephony. Staff can choose to divert calls to voicemail during lessons or out of hours and pick up messages later.
5. Be the centre of the community
Primary schools play a central role in their communities, from hosting summer fetes to religious or community activities, and their headteachers are often an integral part of their communities outside the school walls.
I think there’s a case for emulating primary schools in these ways when things return to normal. Giving parents options that replicate chatting at the school gates, school drop-ins and parents' assemblies is one way to do this. Another is to actively get out and participate in the community, sponsoring a local sports team, judging local competitions, hosting community coffee mornings and supporting the local youth centre.
Overall, the pandemic was a torrid period for many people, but it has also been a time to experiment and innovate. As we move on, we have to remember what we’ve learned and make sure that we continue to use this knowledge to get closer to our parents.
While we can’t remove our physical walls, there is plenty we can do to ensure those practical, emotional and psychological barriers faced by parents remain firmly down.
Dan Locke-Wheaton is principal of Aston University Engineering Academy (AUEA) and recently contributed to a new report on parental engagement: Even better together: A new chapter for parent-school relations?