The importance of being true to type

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
School-parent communications need the professional touch, advocates Hugh Dougherty.

As someone who is in the publications business, I can't help cringeing, both as a professional and as a parent of a primary pupil, at the sort of written material that is sent home from so many schools.

It's not just that you often have to work quite hard to extract the meaning from many words, but it's the fun you have trying to read the words of wisdom.

The main culprit is the school computer and the awful ability of schools to decide which particular teacher is a whizz on the computer. This usually means that the person has found the fonts selection in the set-up and, amazed at the variety, is dedicated to trying most of them, however inappropriate and indistinct.

Clear and readable Times or Bookman rarely makes an appearance on parental communications; instead amazing varieties of italic fonts scrawl their way across reams of multi-coloured paper.

And when a member of the parent-teacher association or similar is let loose on the computer, the result can be even more awful, with the worst excesses of clip art dropped in among the mess to make it even harder to glean meaning.

Though the material may satisfy the school's perception of communication, it simply doesn't catch the imagination of parents used to increasingly sophisticated print work.

You can't blame the schools entirely for this, for the resources simply haven't existed nationally to tackle a fundamental school-home communication problem which makes school communication look amateur, especially when viewed against the run of well designed printed materials all around us. If you suggest that schools invest in centralised and professional production, most aren't happy at the idea of losing some control, or of spending money when the cost of the home-spun approach can be hidden in photocopying budgets. P> There is also the problem of that computer whizz who will take the huff. After all, in an age when status is conferred by the amount of computer knowledge, real or imagined, that an individual can lord over less computer literate mortals, the status of whizz is not to be lightly relinquished.

But it has to be asked if working for hours at a computer trying to do jobs best left to a trained copywriter and designer is the best use of a teacher's time and talents.

The problem is that most local authorities simply do not have the staff or resources to help the schools. But, in terms of best value and teacher workload, the state of school-home communications needs to be looked at in depth.

A great deal could be done both nationally and at local authority level to mirror practice in commerce. It's about supporting staff. After all, you don't find the staff at your local Scotrail station bashing out passenger information on a computer to display it proudly. And I have yet to meet a supermarket manager who produces their own in-store literature.

None of this is to say that some schools aren't very effective communicators with parents, but they tend to be driven by the particular interests and talents of individual heads. Take that person out and the communication collapses.

What is needed is a communication system that is not based on personality or special or unusual skills which may happen to exist in a school, and the best way to have that is to use communication professionals.

Given all the demands on education budgets, that is nothing more than a public relations man's wish list. But, in terms of school support, it is worth working towards.

The writer is a press officer with East Renfrewshire's education office

Does your school have good ways of communicating with parents? Any tips for other schools? Email

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