Keeping in touch by text

Effective communication with parents should be at the heart of school policy, says headteacher Mary Harbinson

We surveyed our parents in November on school communications and found that 100 percent of parents had a mobile and texting was the number one way that they wanted to be contacted. Following this we looked at how we could help them to access school information via their mobile phones and social media.

We already have a website, parents’ evening and parent club, but following the results of the survey, we also decided to set up a school Twitter account and Facebook page so that parents could check dates for school activities and find out the latest news. Parents also asked for a mobile version of the school’s website so that they could access it on their phones.

In addition, we decided to implement Contact Group’s Call Parents texting service which we use to send updates to parents and to which they can reply. It is inexpensive to run and does not impact on our tight budgets. We even use it to remind children about their homework.

We have 150 children from different backgrounds including ethnic minorities, newcomers, Romas and travellers. Many of the parents speak English as an additional language (EAL) so it is important that we are clear and concise in our communications. The text service includes a subject line and short message and parents can respond with questions. We found that letters sent previously were not being read because there was too much information and if parents had more than one child at the school this added to the confusion.

We have a limited fund to spend on professional translation services and we find it much easier to translate short text messages for EAL parents into their own language and they find them less intrusive. It is easy to re-send and eliminates the formality and costs associated with translating and sending a letter.

The service also breaks down communication barriers because we have found that parents with limited numeracy and literacy find it less intimidating to be contacted by the school via text and find it easy to respond.

It is also critical that we have everything in place to ensure that parents are instantly contactable, because some of the children are permanent pupils while others only join us for certain times of the year. The system gives us an acknowledgement that the message has been received and, if not, then we can update the communication file with that family. It saves us a lot of time as previously we regularly brought in staff to telephone parents to ensure contact details were up-to-date.

If someone new comes into the community we have to establish a relationship quickly. Previously we sent many sheets of paper home, invitations to come to the school and added news on the website. We found that this was successful to a point, but parents hadn’t always received the information sent home and did not always have access to a computer or the internet. They do however all have a mobile phone. Now when a note goes home we also send a text – on average twice a week.

We are a parish school and use our texting service to communicate our events to the wider community. The parish council also uses it to publicise its events. For example, during recent renovations to the church we had to change the dates for a fundraising event and texted the community to ensure they weren’t inconvenienced. Because the text service is economical we don’t mind the council using it and it gives a nice feeling of community.

Since we have been using the system we have found that the number of people attending events has risen. We can send reminders and it has had a really good effect on the school, as parents know about events well in advance and there is now no confusion. We had success with our gardening day which proved to be a great way to get the school and community involved in the school garden. On the day we were worried that we didn’t have enough people so we sent a text and within an hour we had 10-15 more.

We also have an eco group within the school and they identified in a report that they wanted to reduce the amount of paper we used by 400 sheets a week. Texting instead of printing has saved us 65 percent of our weekly paper usage. We have also saved 65 percent on printing and postage costs. Normally we would have sent out a letter to each parent, which was costly and carried the chance that it would be lost at the bottom of a school bag. Now we can use a function which sends parents a text message with a link to view the letter.

It is also helps save staff time as one person can message hundreds of contacts in an instant. Texts are kept short, to the point and easy to understand and we can message all pupils, parents and staff very quickly. It is something that you don’t need to have a lot of experience or communication skills to use. We just log in to the school management information system, select recipients and press send.

Texting is a non-threatening form of communication and people feel they are active in the school community if they are communicating, participating and responding. It is an important way to support teachers and increase participation. A school that is communicating well is not only benefiting the parents and children but also the wider community.

Mary Harbinson is headteacher of St Mary’s Primary School, Northern Ireland