My classmates and I could not control our laughter. Using a fuchsia-coloured lipstick, our teacher had written a message to the parents of one of our more disorganised peers – and she had written it right on to the pupil’s forehead.
This happened back in the 1980s when I was at school, but I still think about it sometimes. As a headteacher, I now understand why that teacher did what she did: she was trying to find a way of communicating with parents that couldn’t be ignored or lost on the way home.
Effective home-school communication is crucial to supporting learning. A recent report by the Education Endowment Foundation, which reviewed research into parental engagement (bit.ly/EEF_parents), found “an established link” between this and children’s performance at school for all ages, adding that “well-designed school communications can be effective for improving attainment and a range of other outcomes, such as attendance”.
What’s more, the evidence suggests that listening to parents’ views is just as important as getting messages home successfully. “Communication should be two-way,” the report states, as “parents’ happiness with how schools engage them is higher if they have been consulted [and] schools respond to their preferences”.
As the head of a school that uses an array of communication strategies to reach out to parents, I assumed that we were doing this already. But when I looked more closely at how staff kept in touch with parents, I spotted a looming issue. Our regular coffee mornings, letters, emails, texts, phone calls, weekly newsletters and updates to the school website gave the impression of quality communication. However, I realised that these were really no better than lipstick on the forehead because, overwhelmingly, they represented one-way communication from school to home.
So what did we do about it? One of the ways we now encourage two-way dialogue is by running parent surveys twice a year. This is not an original idea but, when used well, surveys can have a really positive effect. Below are some practical tips for getting the most out of them.
Focus on the essentials
We initially based our surveys on Ofsted’s Parent View questionnaires, but I found them to be rather limited and not specific enough to help with school improvement.
So we decided to make them much more targeted. As well as gleaning general levels of contentment, we’ve used surveys to find out about: parental knowledge of online safety; reading habits at home; how frequently parents access our website; their thoughts on our newsletter; and their understanding of the spiritual, moral, social and cultural aspects of our curriculum.
This level of focus makes it much easier to translate findings into actions for school improvement. For example, our most recent survey made it obvious that we needed to communicate more effectively with parents about what national and school-based assessments look like.
Keep it simple
Having said that, it is better to have a shorter survey focusing on a few highlighted areas than a longer survey that aims to cover more ground, which parents will abandon halfway through. Make your survey as simple as possible to answer. We find that using statements along with tick boxes to indicate the level of agreement (strongly agree, agree, and so on) to be most effective method.
Include “not applicable” or “neutral” as an option here, as parents will sometimes have no experience of what you are asking about.
Make it accessible
While us teachers are down with the edu-lingo, there’s a good chance that it will be little more than edu-babble to most parents. Be mindful of this, particularly if you have a large community of families whose first language is not English, as they will need to have the survey translated.
Similarly, be considerate of how members of your community might like to complete the survey. You can use an online tool, but do not expect a high response rate from this alone. We always carry out our surveys on parents’ evening, handing them out, along with a pencil, as people enter the building. This approach results in massive returns.
Consider the quality of feedback
It’s worth including a section on the survey for parents to write their own comments. This has drawn our attention to some issues we haven’t asked about but which could be easily fixed, and has also led to us receiving some lovely feedback.
Speaking of feedback, I strongly suggest that you allow parents to complete the survey anonymously. Can you really expect honesty from people if they feel that they might hurt your feelings?
To make sure you are able to effectively act on that feedback, decide in advance how you will report the results of the survey to parents. What format will this be in? Include details of any actions you will take in response.
Ensure that you do not reveal individual comments when you report back to parents, though, as this could give away the identity of anonymous commenters.
Keep your ego in check
Once the surveys are completed, that’s when the real “fun” begins. Reading through the responses is when you will face the biggest challenge of conducting surveys: asking other people for their opinions can leave you feeling very vulnerable as a school leader. I invest a lot in my job and, although I am aware that our school is not perfect, when I read a criticism, or even just a well-meant suggestion, I sometimes feel disproportionately uncomfortable or hurt. But ego can be a roadblock on the path to improvement, so learning to let go of this very human reaction is crucial. After all, what is the point of asking for someone’s opinion if you are only paying lip service to the idea of parental voice?
Carrying out a couple of surveys per year is not sufficient, on its own, to work with your parent community effectively. But surveys can be a helpful tool to get you closer to the two-way dialogue that we should all be aiming for. All you have to do is be willing to ask questions and to listen.
Ruth Luzmore is headteacher of St Mary Magdalene Academy