The phone pings. Or beeps. Or buzzes. Or, in some cases, crows like a cockerel.
There is a new text message: “Today, in science, Tilly learned about solids, liquids and gases. Ask her: which one is shaving foam?”
This kind of electronic missive is at the heart of new research, which has revealed that sending parents text messages about their children’s schoolwork can lead to improved academic performance.
The study, conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), draws on the psychological concept of nudge theory, which posits that indirect suggestions are an effective way of influencing individuals’ decision-making processes.
David Cameron famously set up a nudge unit in the Cabinet Office, to try and persuade the British public to act in a socially responsible way. Similarly, Barack Obama’s campaigners sent text messages to voters on election day, encouraging them to vote by providing directions to their nearest polling station.
“It’s putting ideas at the front of the brain for parents,” said Barry Burningham, deputy head of The Nobel School in Hertfordshire, which took part in the EEF study. “So we’ll say: ‘Your child has a science test coming up: make sure you ask them about cells when they get home’. As a parent, knowing what to ask about is the hard bit.”
Thirty-six secondaries took part in the study, sending text messages to the parents of more than 15,600 pupils in Years 7, 9 and 11. The text messages took a number of different forms. Some warned parents that their offspring had tests approaching: “Your child has a maths test this week,” followed up with, “Your child has a maths test tomorrow.”
Others notified parents of children’s missing homework: “Johnny didn’t hand in his English homework today.”
The final set of text messages was sent out weekly, alternating between English, maths and science. These provided conversational prompts that parents could use to discuss their child’s classwork with them after school: for example, would they consider shaving foam to be a solid, liquid or gas?
“With primary schools, the size means that it’s a lot easier for parents to feel like they’re involved,” said Mr Burningham.
“Parents at secondary often feel like there’s a drawbridge mentality: their kids go to school at the start of the day, and the drawbridge goes up. So we’re trying to fill in the moat.”
‘Giving them a nudge’
Parents received an average of one text message a week during the one-year trial. The prompts were preloaded on to messaging software, and were then sent out to the parents of an entire class.
Danielle Mason, EEF head of research, said that the project relied on simple behavioural psychology. “You could have a requirement for every parent to talk to their child once a week about schoolwork,” she said. “That would be seen to be very heavy-handed and onerous, and might not work.
“Or you can send an unobtrusive text message to parents. Rather than using financial incentives or statutory incentives, you’re framing options in a way that might change their behaviour.”
At schools such as Nobel, where some parents feel self-conscious about their own levels of education, such techniques can make a difference. “You aren’t putting any requirement on the parent to learn or to work something out,” Ms Mason said. “You’re giving them a prompt that they can confidently use.”
The children who participated in the EEF study made an average of one month’s additional progress in maths, compared with other children. In addition, their levels of absenteeism dropped. There is some evidence that children also made one month’s additional progress in English. There was no impact on their grades in science, however.
Ms Mason acknowledged that the findings were not overly dramatic. But, she said, the scheme only costs £5.68 per pupil per year. Other EEF projects that were aimed at raising pupils’ attainment have ranged in cost from £4 to £1,000 per pupil per year. “In terms of cost-effectiveness, this ranks very, very highly,” said Ms Mason.
More to the point, said Mr Burningham, the text message scheme has had a day-to-day impact: “Some of the kids came to us and said, ‘It’s not fair – our parents and teachers are communicating with each other. There’s no way we can get out of it.’ It’s a bit of a pincer movement, as far as the kids are concerned.”
And there was also a less immediate, but possibly greater impact. “The children are aware that their parents are more engaged,” Ms Mason said. “And that motivates them to try harder. Or they know that their parent is going to ask them about the test, and that makes them try harder.
“Or a parent appearing more engaged might raise a child’s understanding of the value of their education. Living in a household where education is visibly valued, that has an impact on attainment.”
Nobel headteacher Martyn Henson added that schools need to play a long game. “Yes, the impact on academic progression might be minimal,” he said. “But, building what we think is important – school community – can have a massive impact, as far as that’s concerned.”
Texting parents: facts about the latest study
What is the cost per student per year?
On average, £5.68.
How much work does it involve for teachers?
If class lists are preloaded on to texting software, then sending a text message to a whole class takes only a few seconds. However, some teachers in the study said that there would need to be someone in school who took responsibility for coordinating messages: monitoring their content, accuracy and frequency.
What was the effect on parents?
Parents who received the text messages were more likely to ask their children about revising for a forthcoming test than parents who did not receive them. In the vast majority of cases, parents spoke to their children about the information that they received from school in these messages.
How many schools are already using this technology?
Although many other schools already have software for sending general information to parents via text message, none aside from those in the EEF trial were using this particular model.
The impact on pupils
Pupils who took part in the study:
made about one month of additional progress in maths, compared with other children;
had reduced absenteeism, compared with other children;
made about one month’s additional progress in English, compared with other children (however, this finding may have been affected by missing data, and is therefore not reliable);
made no additional progress in science.