Parental engagement is well understood to be a critical part of a child’s educational development. Indeed, research has shown that 80 per cent of a child’s learning happens outside school, so influencing this, even to a small degree, can have a huge impact.
But good, effective parental engagement is not easy. Schools are often competing with myriad other demands on a parent’s time, while some may be fearful of, or averse to, schools because of prior damaging experiences with or in education.
And then you have the issue that, for many, our data can be out of date or just plain wrong. Emails to nowhere, phones that ring out, a wall of silence through administrative error.
It can be time-consuming to tackle all this, but technology can provide some solutions.
At the most basic level, this is about data cleansing. If you have a dud email or phone number, take it off the system and note that new details need to be gathered. That way, everyone knows the score and no one concludes parental silence when the real issue is poor data.
But tech should be used in a much more sophisticated way than this.
Take events, for example: most are held in the evening. For many parents, particularly those with other children or who work shifts, this is impractical. Does your data system tell you which parents this may include? Have you collated information from parents on the easiest times for meetings?
Have you also worked out the easiest venue in terms of distance from a pupil’s home? It may be that the school is not the simplest place for many to access.
What about travel: making sure you’ve checked the public transport timetables before deciding when to hold an event is another good way to encourage parental engagement: if a parents’ evening ends after the last bus or train has gone, it may not be realistic for people to attend.
Furthermore, many families observe different holidays and festivals. Just as a school would be unlikely to hold an event on Good Friday, it would be sensible to take note of other important cultural dates to ensure there are no clashes that might affect engagement.
Using products that allow parents to receive surveys and polls about suitable times to meet is one simple but effective way to do this.
Which brings us to another role for tech: working out what times it is best to communicate with parents. Sending a paper letter not only risks the message getting lost between book bag or rucksack and home, it also robs you of the chance to understand when parents actually want to access information from school.
Using digital tools, you can begin to build a picture of when the majority of parents will open or access school communications and better target your messaging for those times.
This is crucial information, as with technology you can now share the school experience much more with parents. There are tools that schools can use to make parents aware of the homework and coursework their child is working on, as well as read feedback from teachers on their conduct, assessments and reports.
Such tools should also allow parents to communicate with teachers.
All this depends on knowing the right time and medium for communication to occur.
The medium is crucial. As the most recent data from the Office for National Statistics has shown, the majority of people use smartphones to access the web. As such, school websites need to be mobile-friendly and ensure that key information is accessible in this format. Alternatively, schools should use a service that offers a mobile app that allows parents to access data quickly and easily.
Ideally, any mobile tool should have an app for both iOS and Android devices, as well as be compatible with a range of mobile browsers so that information is always displayed correctly. This should mean that parents can access the information they need whenever they want, whether that is messages from teachers, key contact information or knowing what homework their child is working on.
Ensure a uniform approach to feedback
Although providing updates on a pupil’s progress, important coursework or reminders about forthcoming trips is a great way to engage parents, it’s also important to manage expectations. Warn parents in advance if some departments are more likely than others to be proactive in contacting them about, for example, their child’s latest success. This will help to prevent parents worrying that their child is falling behind in a subject if they don’t have regular progress reports.
Ideally, however, schools should ensure a relatively uniform level of communication, and tech tools can help, by providing templates and reminders to teachers.
All teachers want their pupils to do well, and parental engagement is key to this. But with workloads already heavy, schools need simple solutions to meet the needs of their staff as well as parents. Luckily, technology can help: when there’s an app for everything, why not use one to improve communication between school and home, encourage parents to take an interest in their children’s schoolwork and streamline teachers’ working day?
Dan Watson is a freelance journalist writing about technology and business