Parent communication: Building their trust

Written by: Craig D’Cunha | Published:
Image: iStock

Chantry Academy has re-evaluated how it communicates with its parents in a bid to raise levels of engagement. Headteacher Craig D’Cunha discusses how to engage parents on their terms

Leading a primary school for a term as an interim executive headteacher gave me a new insight into parental engagement.

As a secondary headteacher by trade, I was overwhelmed watching the primary pupils arrive at school and seeing so many adults in the playground – teachers meeting and greeting children and the essential daily contact between teachers, support staff and parents. This doesn’t happen frequently at secondary level.

As educators, we are in one of the most trusted jobs in the world. As a school, surely we have a duty to ensure parents know what goes on?

I always use the analogy of a car – I ask on induction evenings, would you lend me your car for the day and not ask me what I am doing with it?

The overwhelming response is of course not – are you mad?! But this is what we ask parents to do with their children for 190 days each year.

Although many schools struggle to get the parents in. Where I work, the fundamental barrier to children’s progress is disadvantage. For many parents, education was not a positive experience – school was not the catalyst to social mobility, it was not the enjoyable experience that inspired them to learn, and it did not address their immediate challenges.

This can sometimes mean they are not engaged in their child’s education – and this is a fundamental challenge to overcome, to break that cycle of disadvantage, to engage and equip these parents.

Engaging parents on their terms

Chantry Academy went into special measures in December 2014, and as you would expect the school lost the trust of the community and its parents. We decided at that point to change the way we communicate and the way we engage with parents and the wider community.

We realised that if we were to engage the hard-to-reach parents, we would not only have to adjust what we did, but when we did it.

In the days of social media, technology, email, apps and the internet, it is really easy to put the messages out there for parents and carers to see. In fact, with modern technology, it is too easy to communicate and too easy for a school to say we have engaged with our parents – but is this communication is a one-way street?

As a school, we email, post on the portal and text and this has made us ask: what are we saying and is it what parents want to know – what is the purpose of the information and who truly is the intended audience? And are all the parents listening?

We decided to let parents select their appointment times for parents’ evening. Parents without electronic access to book appointments can call staff to arrange their appointments. We call parents before parents’ evening to remind them, and afterwards to ensure that if an appointment was missed, we can still have a conversation with them.

We decided that we should take education out of the building and to the community – we even tried having an information evening in the local pub, with laptops available. In some respects, it had limited success with only six of 25 parents attending, but for those six parents it was a huge success. We’re thinking of trying it again in a different pub.

We have also created a Chantry Learning Zone in the local library with online access for parents. To spread the word wider, we have established a partnership with Realise Futures, which provides free community education. This has seen many parents re-engaging with education in the same setting as their children, and as a result we have developed a more positive relationship with the community.

Adjusting policies

We adjusted our homework policy so parents knew what homework had been set, and made sure they were equipped to help their child complete the homework.

Students went home with key knowledge that they had to learn and we supplied parents with the information they needed to test them. We have found that involving parents in learning has really helped pupils to maintain their level of progress.

Parent forum

Like many schools we started a parent forum. The forum is not a parent-teacher association (PTA), but a focus group that feeds information into school so it can improve. Parents from all year groups can attend, and there is no limit on numbers.

At the forum meetings, we discuss what isn’t working from a parental view and how this can be addressed. Two major projects came from this group:

  1. Redesigning the school website so information that parents need is easily available.
  2. Producing a parent handbook, which contains the key bits of information, processes and contacts that parents need to ensure they can continue to make a contribution to their child’s education.

The difference between the two? The second is a simple guide that sits on the table or can be pinned to fridge for ease of use.

Impact

Eighteen months on and we came out of special measures in June 2016. Crucially, we re-established the trust of parents. Today, 96 per cent of parents on Parent View would now recommend the school, which represents an increase of 66 percentage points. Our reputation in the community has improved to such an extent that we now have a waiting list in year 7.

Even with a greater emphasis on parental two-way communication, community involvement and parent-led developments, we are still learning and can sometimes still find it difficult to engage all parents.

Lesson learned

So in conclusion, what have I learned? The strength of the primary model is the relationship and trust of the parents in the school. In primary school, the relationship manifests itself with an informal conversation because parents feel they “can”. In secondary schools, we need to achieve the same goal.

Whatever technology or system you have in place, effective communication and parental engagement will only happen if parents feel they “can”. They must not be held at arm’s length, but embraced by the school. Ultimately, parents must feel able to trust the school and feel that the school is working for the benefit of their child.

  • Craig D’Cunha is headteacher at Chantry Academy in Ipswich, part of the Active Learning Trust. He is a graduate of the government’s Talented Leaders initiative, which was run by the charity Ambition School Leadership.

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk


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