Why parental engagement has to be an all-school journey

The benefits of parental engagement will only be fully realised if everyone in a school is on board and pulls in the same direction

David James

Teacher with parents and pupils

All successful schools are built on a series of effective and balanced partnerships with no one bond being more valuable than another. 

Inevitably, we think of the relationship between teachers and students as being of primary importance, but it doesn’t exist in isolation, and will be significantly weakened if staff don’t enjoy a mutually supportive working relationship with senior leaders.

And if those senior leaders are not acting as one with their governing body then the school’s sense of itself, and its core values, can be seriously damaged. Everything should interlink.

But it is the relationship that a school has with its parents that is the most complex. And because it is so diverse, and resources are limited, it can often be the partnership which – if not maintained by all staff – can be difficult to manage.

Too often schools have a "reactive" approach to how they deal with families, only reaching out to them when things are going well...or not. However, new technological solutions can help to make parental engagement something all staff can take part in to embed it into school life.

New pathways

Increasingly, schools need to work with parents on a daily basis if student progress is to be understood and built on. Fortunately, the opportunities for positive parental engagement have never been more accessible and easy-to-use for all. Technological solutions provide new pathways for more meaningful – and mutual – communication. But using technology on its own should come with a warning: it should be a bridge, not a wall, a facilitating medium for encouraging conversation and face-to-face exchanges, not a cold barrier for mutual incomprehension. 

There are many platforms to turn to when a school is considering how to integrate its management system with something more outward-facing. However, school managers contemplating purchasing a new system should go for one that is extensively used in schools, is user-friendly and has a messenger framework with a single sign-on service, reducing unnecessary friction that slows down even the simplest task of communication.

Removing obstacles – particularly around ICT – is one of the most effective actions school leaders can take if they want a smooth – and happy – workplace and, in turn, parental body.

The parental challenge

The challenge is to ensure that every stakeholder – including parents – feels that the support they are getting from school adds to what is already offered, rather than just introducing another level of confusion. Teachers and parents need to see the tangible benefits and see them quickly.

All-in-one solutions can empower parents to play a more active role (and in real time) in seeing their children’s daily, weekly, and termly activities develop as they progress through each key stage. Getting immediate updates about school activities, as well as administrative matters, are reassuring, but such platforms should – and can – do more. 

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The importance of communication

Ensuring that a student’s progress can be accurately measured and recorded can sound dry and routine, but all teachers know this is fundamental to the work they do. Teachers also know that without support from home, much of the work done in school can become compromised.

An easy exchange of information between teachers and parents is the foundation for ensuring consistency of understanding and expectations. Messages can only be re-enforced if they are understood and bought into.

Academic underachievement, deadlines ignored, lessons skipped, or registrations missed – such things are more easily dealt with if they are caught early. And when parents are not aware of deadlines, test results, and assignments set, then they are often (understandably) unable to support the school at key moments in the term. Conversely, misunderstandings creep in quickly when personal circumstances at home are not conveyed.

Effective communication is the foundation for shared and successful outcomes. It’s in the students' interests if the adults talk. 

Invest in people 

But schools have to invest in training all staff to feel comfortable using these tools.  The days when the school office was the sole outlet for a steady trickle of data are receding as quickly as mobile technology is becoming a dominant medium for two-way communication. And with that new exchange comes new responsibilities on both sides.

Teachers and parents can share the same goals and understand the pathways they need to take for their children to reach them. Everyone involved in working towards achieving excellence in a school recognises the need for shared communication and shared aspirations for all.

New school and old school

But technology is just another tool and should complement more "old school" methods of conveying information that many teachers often still enjoy sending as much as parents and pupils enjoy receiving.

There is nothing like getting a letter from the headteacher, posted home, opened over breakfast, congratulating a student on a great achievement. You can pin that to the fridge. Nor can anything replace parents visiting their children’s school regularly to support the work of the staff: believe me, that really is appreciated by everyone. An emoji is no replacement for a round of applause and a smiling face. 

Technology, used well, can allow us to learn more about ourselves and our children, and it frees us up to focus on what makes us fully human, and to remind us why schools are such social places that are at the heart of every community and, ideally, every family. 

David James is deputy head (academic) of an independent school in the South of England

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