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School leaders need to tell parents the truth about teacher supply, says Mumsnet founder

Headteachers could avoid piles of letters from angry parents by communicating with them about what's really going on in school

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The relationship between parents and teachers is a delicate one. On the one hand, teachers hold a large part of our children’s futures in their hands, so we’re quite keen to curry favour (those end-of-term bottles of wine are chosen with more care than you know). On the other, the average parent has about as much knowledge of internal school processes and budgets as we do of cold fusion, and – if we’re honest – it can make us a bit jumpy. 

So by the time we’ve worked out that an action of the school is both sensible and justified by official guidance, we’ve written 12 letters to the governors and erected a tent outside the headteacher’s office. At which point, it can be difficult to back down gracefully.

If we may make a gentle suggestion (and do please have this £10 Marks & Spencer voucher as a small token of our esteem), some of this could be addressed by a bit more transparency on the part of some schools’ senior leadership teams. 

Parents, as a rule, aren’t desperately unreasonable, but we do see ourselves as important players in our child’s education and tend to become anxious when aspects of it change without warning. 

Supply teaching – an issue that often rears its head on Mumsnet forums – is a case in point. The sudden unexplained appearance of a supply teacher taking Jack’s maths class for several weeks raises a host of questions. Who is this person? How long is (s)he going to be here? Why isn’t (s)he setting any homework? 

If the regular teacher is absent, is that likely to be a long-term thing? If so, will more permanent cover be put in place? If a teacher disappears on a regular basis, why is that?

I could go on but you get the idea. There are extreme tales on Mumsnet of very young children having strings of supply teachers right through the foundation stage; understandably, the children become unsettled, at home as well as at school. 

Some schools try to solve the problem by inserting an already heavily committed senior teacher into the role instead. But this just means the senior teacher has to absent themselves from the classroom to attend to their other duties, requiring (you guessed it) a supply teacher.

It can take courage to change the dynamic, but approaching situations such as this with the default switch set to “communication” could make a huge difference. 

An email to parents explaining what’s happening and why – even if it might not be positively received – can forestall a term’s worth of frantic whispering at the school gates. 

Parents, like NHS patients, will understand and even sympathise about financial constraints and logistical difficulties. What really unnerves them is uncertainty and obfuscation. Much as we love hearing about Year 8’s triumphant hockey tour, we’d swap a year’s worth of bland bi-termly newsletters for one email from the headteacher with the subject line: “Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on.”

Justine Roberts is founder and chief executive of Mumsnet, the UK’s biggest network for parents. She has a monthly column in TES.

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