Roundtable: parent power

Letters, emails, text messages, apps – how should schools, colleges and universities communicate most effectively with parents? Steve Wright asks the experts


David Midkiff, learning consultant, Firefly Learning

Abdul Ghafoor, head of product, SIMS Parental Engagement, Capita

Andrew Hammond, senior director of learning and community, Discovery Education

Carmel Glassbrook, practitioner, Professional Online Safety Helpline (POSH) / co-ordinator, South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL)

Rob Eastment, head of learning, Firefly Learning

Q. Why is it important for education providers to maintain regular communication with parents?

Abdul Ghafoor: Engaging parents in the educational development of their children has been proven to improve attainment, behaviour and character development (such as self-confidence, empathy and persistence). When parents are involved in their children’s education, they become essential partners for schools in the drive to raise aspirations and to cement their child’s concept of themself as a learner.

Carmel Glassbrook: Maintaining regular communications with parents, and ensuring that those parents know where to go and who to ask if they have an issue, is key to a happy school community. All too often on the POSH helpline, we see parents using online platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp to discuss problems at the school, which can cause reputational damage.

This is usually because the school has not addressed the underlying issue and is not effectively communicating the measures they are taking internally with parents.

It may be that online platforms such as Facebook are where parents feel most able to discuss things happening at the school (sports day, for example), in which case, we would encourage the school to make their own private group and invite the parents. This way, the school knows what’s being said and can step in where necessary. It also gives the parents space to chat, make connections and discuss school matters in an enclosed environment.

This could also be very useful for those parents who have trouble understanding the information their children are coming home with, and maybe don’t have the time or courage to ask in person when at school.

Andrew Hammond: Good education is a partnership between parents, carers and teachers. When lines of communication are clear, open and regular between school and stakeholders, concerns are identified early, and lessons learned in school can be reinforced and revisited at home. Parents and carers are children’s first teachers, after all.

Rob Eastment: The importance of the role of parents in the educational wellbeing of their children is already well documented, but with many parents leading increasingly busy lives, it can be very difficult for them to have the information they need to be a supportive and active member of the home school partnership. Like any relationship, the strength of this partnership is dependent upon regular, ongoing communication between all participants; if we can make parents part of a continuous learning conversation then face-to-face meetings become more meaningful, issues can be dealt with before they escalate, and children feel more supported in their learning.

Q. What are the most important elements in parental engagement?

AG: The greatest impact from parent engagement comes from what parents do at home. This includes setting expectations to raise aspirations, routines that promote wellbeing and self-study, a home learning environment which stimulates learning, offering encouragement, teaching social skills, role-modelling positive behaviours and having discussions about meaningful day-to-day subjects. This doesn’t come naturally, so it’s important that schools are able to support parents with guidance and insights about the school day, academic progress, attitude towards learning and resources for independent learning.

CG: Not all parents will have the time or ability to make it into school regularly. It’s therefore vitally important that those parents who are not physically present are getting all the same messages and information as the parent who is actively involved.

To achieve this regular and useful communication, updates should be shared in a range of ways – via email/online, letters home and face-to-face. It’s also important to note that some children may deliberately or accidentally forget to pass on letters to their parent or carer. In this case, two forms of communication may be needed. Schools sometimes tend to over-egg the pudding with parents, sending letters home every day, along with email notifications and whatever else. It may be that those communications are all needed, but some are more important or urgent than others.

Schools should look for a way to prioritise communications to parents so they know what needs to be dealt with and when. It’s important that the whole school community is kept up to date with any policy changes or new events. The last thing parents want is to find out that it’s a non-uniform day when they arrive at the school gates.

AH: Safeguarding first. Then, supporting the learning (reading at home, discussing topics, using mathematics in the supermarket, motivating and supporting wellbeing). Schools are built on trust – we act in loco parentis during school hours – and when we act in partnership with parents, the children are most effectively supported and make the most progress.

RE: Generally, parents want to know four things: what is my child learning? What progress is my child making? Is my child happy? How can I support my child’s learning? If schools can make sure they’re getting this information to parents on a regular basis, then those parents will be more engaged, reassured and empowered to support their child’s learning at home. But if this information is to make a difference, the communications must be easy for parents to access, they need to be relevant to that particular family and, crucially, they need to be timely – there’s no point giving parents information when it’s too late for them to act upon it.

Q. What are the current challenges facing parental communication within the education sector?

AG: The challenges to parental communication can be split into three key themes – practical barriers (lack of time, language, transport, commitments to care for other children), perceptions about schools being hard to keep up with (not using the right channels or talking in education jargon); and parents’ difficulties with basic skills (literacy and numeracy).

CG: As we have touched upon, the internet and social media have provided a new space for people to communicate, and this can be a great way to involve all parents in the school community. However, it also brings with it some challenges. We often see online platforms being used to discuss sensitive issues in a very public forum, which can not only cause reputational damage to the school, but can also impact the learning of students and wellbeing of teachers. It can be tricky for schools to manage their online presence on top of everything else.

At SWGfL, we have created Reputation alerts. This way, you can be in the know about what is being talked about in reference to your school, online. This is a powerful tool that gives you the insight and knowledge into what has been mentioned and talked about within your school in all of the open online settings.

AH: The affordability (and reliability) of technology; the sheer volume of messages sent and received; getting through to the right person at the right time. The advantage of emailing is that it is immediate; the disadvantage of email is that it requires an instant reply!

David Midkiff: How many platforms does your school need? At my most recent school, we had a website, social media feeds, letters sent home, etc. Parents could log on to our VLE, but the parent app wasn’t very good. There was also the MIS for attendance records and the markbook software’s parent portal.

Parents who wanted a lot of communication certainly had plenty of options; however, it wasn’t uncommon for parents to ring the school to ask where they could find a particular bit of information. Occasionally, I would even find myself fielding an email from a parent about where to find something. The process of collating relevant information for a parent meeting from across the range of systems could also be time-consuming.

So how do you attempt to find the right balance? I think it comes down to a few key questions: what platforms mean the most to your parents? What time can you and your team regularly dedicate to meaningful communication? What communication tools are going to connect with parents? Consider your opportunities to get the most out of a few well and regularly used tools. Complexity in education is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be intractable.

Q. When it comes to matters of wellbeing, how do institutions navigate ethical considerations when deciding whether to break confidentiality and intervene?

AG: Wellbeing is still an emerging area in terms of our understanding about mental health conditions, emotional resilience, and keeping up with the pace of change today. In the context of safeguarding and ensuring that students and staff are happy and well supported, judgments need to be made about how others feel and how to develop inclusive environments. Decisions in this arena also have a significant impact on safeguarding and information confidentiality.

One of the most effective ways of overcoming this is to develop cultural awareness. Building strong links with families and communities ensures a comprehensive understanding of students’ needs and helps in developing resilience.

CG: There is a fear in the UK about the mis-sharing of information and what data protection laws need to be considered before taking such actions. Unfortunately, in the past, this fear and reluctance to share information between agencies has led to severe failures in child safeguarding. If a child is at risk, nothing is more important than that child’s welfare. Protecting that child adequately means that all measures should be taken to ensure that the relevant bodies are aware of the situation. The Child Protection Acts of 1989 and 2004 override any data protection laws, so long as you can justify a real need to safeguard the young person in question.

AH: Policy. Always stick to your policy. If your policy doesn’t cover something, change your policy and get the governors to ratify the changes. But some decisions just require some common sense, trust and courage to do the right thing! I don’t know many ‘ethical considerations’ that would conflict with wellbeing.

Q. What sorts of products and services are currently available, and how do they support seamless communication with parents?

AG: There is a range of generic wellbeing digital products like Headspace and Calm which encourage mindfulness. Moodpath is an interactive depression and anxiety screening program which tracks psychological, emotional and physical health over a short period. Smiling Mind is a service designed to help people tackle the pressure, stress and challenges of daily life, with a specific focus on mindfulness in the classroom. However, there is a need to ensure that the experience at school, which is best understood by teachers, is shared with parents to enable them to have conversations with their child when they notice a decline in behaviour or achievement. The SIMS Parent app provides a window into the classroom which provides a clear update for parents, so they can best manage the situation and correlate it with what’s happening in their child’s personal life.

CG: There are lots of products on the market that can offer a line of communication between schools and parents. A lot of these apps and services come at a cost, and schools need to weigh up if this cost is going to work out for them, or whether there is a more traditional way to manage their communications.

For larger secondary schools where students have several subject teachers, it may be easier and more streamlined for both school and parents to use one portal to communicate, rather than sending/receiving several emails throughout the day. Giving an anonymous line of communication that is open to the entire school community gives assurance and safety – and demonstrates your school’s dedication to listening to, and understanding, their pupils and wider community.

One of the tools that can increase engagement and set up an anonymous line of communication is the tool Whisper, which gives everyone the confidence to speak up and reach out – both hugely important parts of every healthy school environment.

RE: Parent communication is well served at the moment, with a wide range of apps and services available to schools. It’s important to remember that communication is more than just messages and transactions, but there are plenty of tools that provide an insight into the child’s progress and activities, as well as letting parents get notifications and details of upcoming events, for example. The Firefly for Parents app gives parents the information they need, whether that’s their child’s homework, the latest updates from school, or access to teaching materials so they can support their child’s learning more effectively. Crucially, all of this information can be viewed straight from the parent’s mobile phone, simplifying communications and giving parents one central place to access everything they need.

Q. Are there any differences between communicating with parents of a) school-age children and b) college and university students?

AG: As most children grow into young adults, they develop an active social and digital profile, manage their own money, and form their own pathway for academic or work interests. To this end, parental engagement does vary significantly and needs to be complemented with student services that grow with the learner, supporting their decision-making, independence and personal responsibility.

At all education phases, parents should be engaged with their child’s learning as they are a key support and essential role model.

CG: There has been quite some debate about this in recent years, especially in relation to the wellbeing of university students. There have been several suicides at UK universities. Some parents of those young people have been asking why they were not informed that their child had been accessing mental health services via the university, thinking that, if they had known, they could have done more to support their child. The difference and difficulty here for further educational settings is that they are often dealing with young adults, not children. Therefore, those young people have a right to confidentiality and the university has no obligation to share anything with parents, unless the young person asks specifically that they do.

By this stage, you are supporting young adults who are learning to be in control of their own lives. It’s up to them to remember to write their essays and bring their sports kit. They have to learn to manage their own time and their own activities. This is why it feels a little odd for parents to be contacted on a regular basis, if at all.

AH: Yes, of course. Parents of little children require a great deal of reassurance in those early years. That’s not to say that parents of older students care less, rather that they are more used to the system and know what to expect. Open, honest and two-way communication is always the best option, so that niggles and concerns can be addressed before they mount (and spread!).

The new RSE curriculum is a good example of this. From September 2020, it will be compulsory for primary schools to provide PSHE education that covers health and relationships. Misreporting around what children should actually be taught has caused anxiety for some parents. Discovery Education’s new Health and Relationships programme takes this into account, providing schools with practical support and guidance to assist parental engagement. This includes letters to parents and material for parental workshops, alongside a full suite of curriculum-matched, age-appropriate teaching resources.

“It’s important that school communication tools are easy to understand, accessible to parents and provide a holistic view of school life” – Abdul Ghafoor


Q. What should education providers look for in a tool that supports communication with parents?

AG: It’s important that school communication tools are easy to understand, accessible to parents and provide a holistic view of school life, learning and extra-curricular activities. Digital tools need to transmit information securely and provide regular, timely and personalised updates to one parent or many. From an operational perspective, these tools need to work seamlessly with existing systems, and provide real time-saving value.

CG: Education providers should do some research into the tools available and choose the one that will work best for them. Not all educational settings are the same, and the available tools will vary. Schools and other educational settings should first decide what it is they need help with, and what functions/tools could make communication easier for them.

AH: Ease of use and reliability are the two most important features.

RE: When schools are selecting technology with a view to improving parental engagement, it’s imperative that the platform provides a mobile app option. This will allow parents to ‘pull’ information from the school at a time that suits them, as well as giving the school the opportunity to ‘push’ important information to parents when appropriate. Put simply, the easier you make collaboration between teachers and parents, the more informed both groups are, and the stronger the relationship between school and home will be. There will be less chance of misunderstandings, and students will feel more supported in their learning.

Tools and further reading

● SWGfL Reputation Alerts: to stay on top of what is being said about your school and staff online

● UK government guidance on safeguarding children:

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