MetLife research from 2012 suggests that, although home-school communications have improved over the last twenty-five years, parental engagement remains an area of improvement for most schools – and the responsibility for improving it often rests with the School Business Manager.
Why parental engagement matters
Parental engagement is of great import in all sorts of ways:
• According to Butler et el (2008), Haynes et al (1989), and Henderson (1987), it is associated with higher academic achievement.
• Butler and Haynes also claim that effective parental engagement leads to increased rates of pupil attendance.
• Becher (1984) and Henderson et al (1986) say it can have a positive effect on pupils’ attitudes to learning and on their behaviour.
Research has also shown that getting a school’s communications policy right can lead to:
• An increased level of interest amongst pupils in their work (see, for example, Rich  and Tobolka ),
• Increased parent satisfaction with their child’s teachers (Rich), and
• Higher rates of teacher satisfaction (MetLife ).
So the big question for SBMs is how can parental engagement be improved?
How to improve parental engagement
Firstly, communication needs to start early and continue throughout a pupil’s journey through school. The parents of pupils moving from nursery to primary school, or from primary to secondary, will not want to receive information halfway through the summer holiday at which point it will be deemed too late. Schools need to engage with parents early and clearly set out their expectations and requirements.
Secondly, communication needs to be a two-way process: as well as the school staying in touch with parents, parents also need a means of keeping in contact with the school. One way to do this is to create an FAQ page, as well as a Q&A facility and a parents’ forum on the school’s website. This will need to be monitored carefully, of course, or perhaps pass through a ‘gatekeeper’ in order to be vetted before comments are made ‘live’. In order for it to be viewed as worthwhile, the school will also need to communicate its response to parental comments and suggestions, perhaps through a ‘You Said, We Did’ page.
Thirdly, communications need to be appropriately timed, relevant and useful and one way to do this is to utilise the experience and expertise of pupils and their parents. For example, the parents of current Reception or Year 7 pupils will be able to share their thoughts on what information they needed when they went through the transition process with their child not so long ago, as well as when they needed it most, whilst current Reception or Year 7 pupils will be able to offer their advice about how to prepare for primary or secondary school by, to give but two examples, providing a reading list for the summer and sharing their advice on how to get ready for the first day of school.
Fourthly, parental communication should take many forms and embrace new and emerging technologies. The use of technologies such as email, texting, websites, electronic portfolios and online assessment and reporting tools have – accordingly to Merkley, Schmidt, Dirksen and Fuhler (2006) – made communication between parents and teachers more timely, efficient, productive and satisfying.
So what might this look like in practice?
How to use technology to engage parents
Here are a few suggestions for how technology could be used to help a school communicate with parents and vice versa:
• Parents could send teachers an email to let them know when the home learning environment may be (temporarily or otherwise) holding a pupil back.
• Likewise, teachers could send parents an email to let them know when issues arise at school which may have a detrimental effect on the pupil, such as noticeable changes in behaviour or deficits in academic performance.
• Teachers could text parents at the end of the day on which a pupil has done something particularly well or shown real progress or promise. Instant and personal feedback like this is really valuable and helps make a connection between the teacher and the parents.
• Teachers could send half-termly or monthly newsletters via email to parents to inform them about what topics they are covering in class in the coming weeks, what homework will be set and when, and how parents can help.
• The school could use text, email and the school website to keep parents updated on forthcoming field trips, parent association meetings and other school activities.
• Teachers could use email to send out regular tips to parents on how they might be able to support their child’s learning that week/month. For example, they could send a list of questions to ask their child about what students have been learning in class. They could also send hyperlinks to interactive quizzes or games.
• The school could use the school website to gather more frequent and informal parent voice information about specific topics. For example, they might post a short survey after each open evening and parents’ evening.
• The school could provide an online calendar via its website to allow parents to volunteer to help in class, say as reading mentors or special events.
• An online calendar could also be used as a booking facility to enable parents to make their own meetings with school staff rather than having to phone the school, which many people find daunting.
• The online calendar could prove useful for booking slots at parents’ evenings and other open evenings and events, enabling parents to be in control of the times at which they attend school rather than relying on a child and their teachers to agree suitable slots.
How to engage ‘hard-to-reach’ parents
Even once a school has established and embedded an effective parental engagement strategy, some parents are likely to remain hard to reach and it’s often these parents that a school needs to engage with the most.
So why do some parents find it difficult to talk to their child’s school?
Sometimes it’s because they lead busy, complicated lives and schools don’t often present themselves as being high on their to-do list. Also, school’s operating hours tend to clash with parents’ working lives.
Other times, it’s because a parent had a difficult experience of school as a youngster and remains reluctant to enter a school building or talk with teachers. They may be daunted and even afraid.
In both these cases, a school may need to consider alternative approaches, such as engaging with parents by telephone in the evenings and weekends, or meeting with them at another – neutral – location nearby, perhaps even using a ‘go-between’ such as another parent who is known to be engaged and reliable.
Some parents may have poor levels of literacy and so will need to be communicated with more sensitively in order that they do not misunderstand the nature and purpose of the communication, and in order to make it easier for them to respond without fear of humiliation.
Hard-to-reach parents are often the parents that schools need to reach most because their children – as a result of a lack of involvement or interest at home – attend school infrequently or late, present behavioural challenges when they do attend, and/or have low levels of literacy and/or numeracy.
Where parents have consistently condoned their child’s absence from school, there is much to be done in establishing and developing positive relationships between the school and the parents, and in educating parents on the impact of poor attendance.
The appointment of a specialist, such as a home-school liaison officer, may prove a successful approach where schools need to improve achievement in the longer term.
Much depends on building up and sustaining positive relationships between parents and the school. The introduction of rewards and incentives (that are also seen as being attractive to pupils) can help promote improved attendance, behaviour and achievement. Parents will have their own views about such reward schemes and should be consulted.
Engaging recently-immigrated parents
Some parents are hard to reach because they are newly arrived in the UK, have nascent (or no) English skills, and feel alienated from society and schools. Moreover, language and cultural differences can make parents feel intimidated by schools. It’s also possible that some parents emigrated from a country where parental involvement in their child’s school was actively discouraged, and their re-education in the ways of English schooling may prove a significant barrier for them.
One solution to this challenge is to arrange for a mother-tongue speaker to meet with parents, offering classes in English language and/or offering induction sessions to help parents become more familiar with and confident in their understanding of the school system in the UK.
This works both ways, of course…
A school may also benefit from arranging information sessions run by recently-immigrated parents and aimed at helping school staff to gain a better understanding of the lifestyles, traditions and customs of local ethnic minority groups.