The study, conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), draws on the psychological concept of nudge theory, which says that indirect suggestions are an effective way of influencing individuals’ decision-making.
“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?
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.”
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.
This is an edited article from the 15 July edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here