In September 2014, I joined the senior leadership team at Alfreton Grange, having worked there for two years. I was given responsibility for "community engagement". Those aren't just buzzwords – over the past year I have realised how essential community, and particularly parental, engagement is to the wellbeing of a school and its pupils.
Our students are predominantly of White British origin and are from very mixed backgrounds. We have above average numbers for both Pupil Premium funding and for SEN.
In September 2013, the school was placed into special measures and failed to show improvement during the follow up monitoring inspection. For the past three years, in-year leavers have outnumbered in-year applications, with a majority of pupils leaving for other local schools.
In the summer of 2014, the school achieved its lowest results in years and 11 staff were made redundant due to a deficit budget and falling roll. All this meant that we were represented negatively in the media. Faith in the school was at an all-time low.
Prior to September 2014, parental contact was minimal – only 16 per cent of all parents had ever been contacted via telephone. We received complaints regarding the lack of communication and parents would often say that they had tried to contact teachers several times before managing to talk to anybody.
For parents' evenings, the average attendance in 2013/14 was 50 per cent (56 per cent for year 11 and 60 per cent for year 7). On average, 12 per cent of Pupil Premium parents/carers attended.
The school needed to focus on rebuilding relationships in order to encourage both students and parents to come through our doors – and to stay.
My aim, therefore, was to improve communication with parents. I aimed to increase parental contact to at least 75 per cent and reduce the number of parental complaints. I predicted that an indirect outcome of this would be a reduction in the number of in-year school-leavers. I also wanted to increase the attendance of parents at key events to at least 75 per cent, with a particular focus on increased attendance of parents/carers of Pupil Premium students (to 50 per cent). As such, we needed a few quick-wins to make a clear change...
Behaviour phone calls
In September 2014, a new behaviour system was put in place which involved issuing students with a warning in lessons for inappropriate behaviour. If this behaviour persisted, the students would be sent out of the classroom to another member of staff – a "buddy" – but parents were not contacted about these sanctions.
In consultation with the senior leadership team, heads of faculty, and a group of staff, we made the decision to ask staff to phone home following each "buddy" event. The phone call home must be made within 24 hours and logged on the management information system.
In April 2015, we amended our detention system so that detentions would take place two nights after each "buddy" event. This relied even more heavily upon staff calling home.
Initially, staff were concerned about the amount of time spent calling home. I discussed with staff on an individual basis the reason behind calling home and, on the whole, the staff took to this with gusto.
My next step was to improve routine staff communication with parents. Before, an incredibly laborious virtual voicemail system had been in place. Staff had to walk to the staffroom to see whether they had a message icon on the screen. If they did, they then had to find a phone to listen to the message and return this call. Staff admitted via a survey that they would often ignore the message icon as it was too much hassle.
The system was removed with immediate effect in September 2014. Calls are now taken by reception and fielded to appropriate staff. Where staff do not have direct access to a phone or are teaching, email messages are sent to provide them with the details of the caller so that they can return the call.
Attendance at parents' evenings
Increasing attendance at parents' evenings is vital if we are to improve our relationships with parents and our attainment. Our first step was to find out in advance which parents were intending to come to parents' evening.
In the past, students were not expected to inform staff of whether they and their parents intended to attend, but in September 2014 we added a reply slip to the bottom of all parents' evening letters. Now, a team of pastoral and admin staff work with form tutors to make sure that every parent who fails to return a reply slip is contacted. Following the parents' evening, parents who have not attended are contacted to ask why and how we can help them to attend the next event.
Overall, attendance at parents' evening has increased to an average of 82 per cent, while 36 per cent of parents of Pupil Premium students attend – triple the proportion of 2013/14. The lowest attendance for a parents' evening was seen in year 11 at 63 per cent and the highest in year 7 at 94 per cent.
Reducing the number of in-year leavers
For the past three years, 44 students on average have left each year. This needed to change. In addition to the increased communication described above, which I hoped would reduce the number of parents seeking to remove their children from the school, I introduced a more thorough follow up system with would-be leavers.
Each time a student makes an application to another school, a member of admin staff emails the pastoral team and senior leadership team. From here a discussion takes place about any reasons why the student may be leaving, after which I contact the parents of the child to determine the reason for the application.
On three occasions, parents have been invited into school to discuss their concerns and from here the three students changed their minds and decided to stay. For the first time since 2010/11, the school has had more in-year admissions than in-year leavers – only 17 left, less than half the average over the past three years. Of these, 12 have moved out of catchment.
Colleagues were largely receptive to all these changes. Many staff now make regular positive phone calls to parents to commend their children for their hard work.
Today, we receive far fewer parental complaints. More than that, many of our relationships with parents are now positive, and that's been great to see.
One parent in particular had previously been incredibly negative about the school and especially about our communication. As a result, she had considered removing her son. Following our new initiatives, she wants her son to stay – she says that she now knows who to contact at school and always receives a prompt response.
While we have yet to see significant improvements in attainment that we can attribute to these initiatives, we feel confident that our 2015/16 year 11 will really feel the benefit of their parents' increased engagement, and that we will see that in their results.
We want to continue to improve our communication and engage even more of our parents. We recently introduced a weekly newsletter to all parents containing information on upcoming events, important dates for the calendar and highlighting students' achievements that week.
At a recent parents' evening, one parent stated that because of the newsletter they now feel that they know what is going on in the school – that's what we want. In this academic year we plan to focus on improving communication regarding reward and praise.
The Future Leaders programme has been vital in helping me to make these changes. The two-week residential training which took place during the summer of 2014 was second to none. Working and spending time with a group of talented school leaders who have been in similar situations allowed me to hit the ground running with effective, tested methods to have maximum impact.
- Emma Howard is assistant headteacher, parental and community engagement, at Alfreton Grange School in Derbyshire.
Future Leaders works to eradicate educational disadvantage by running leadership development programmes for exceptional school leaders. It is recruiting for the Talented Leaders programme (http://bit.ly/SecEdTLP), which gives experienced school leaders support to take up a headship in an area that needs excellent leadership. Visit www.future-leaders.org.uk