How to ensure online parents’ evenings are effective

Written by: Daniel Locke-Wheaton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

One of the most popular innovations during Covid has been the move to online parents’ evenings, but principal Daniel Locke-Wheaton says they require careful handling if they are to prove an effective and permanent alternative


Physical parents’ evenings are set to become a thing of the past here at Aston University Engineering Academy (AUEA), a 13 to 19 university technical college with 600 students in central Birmingham.

We have undergone a massive shift in the way we engage with our parent body and, given that no-one was an expert in online parental engagement before the pandemic, we have had to build the plane as we flew it.

One key area where we saw immediate change was in parents’ evenings and daily parents’ pastoral or academic meetings.

Our evenings had traditionally always been held face-to-face on the one evening, with parents invited for a five-minute consultation, while daily meetings were always face-to-face at our city centre location.

It was never ideal, that much we knew. When you reflect on the parents’ evening in its traditional form, it no longer makes any sense. It is really not a natural situation for any parent to have to rush home from work, struggle through traffic and fight for a parking place, only to sit in a classroom or hall for a very rushed meeting which can sometimes be overheard by families sat at nearby tables.

The lockdown – of course – changed all that. We immediately moved all of our parent evenings and daily meetings online and that is where we know they will stay.


A new normal...

Although we are in the early stages, it is the sheer flexibility and accessibility that has impressed our parent body. By sticking with this approach, parents also see that we understand the pressures they face in their lives.

For example, we have a parent who is an oil rig engineer who was able to join a recent parents’ meeting even though he was on a rig off the coast of Norway. They can stay involved in their child’s education – that simply would not have been possible before the pandemic.

We have experimented with different formats for online parents’ evenings, from the traditional single evening event to a flexible review week. This second model is really valued by staff. We told them that instead of concentrating parents’ meetings over the course of one evening, they can organise their own slots at whatever time suits them and their parents, as long as it happens within a set week. They have held meetings at lunchtimes, mid-mornings and evenings. We find that 6pm and 1pm are peak times.

The feedback has been really positive. We might end up using a combination of approaches in the future – for the lower years and annual review days we will continue with the single event approach but for the higher years we will use this more flexible approach.


A new etiquette

The more complex challenges come with the etiquette surrounding online parents’ meetings. In the pre-pandemic world, if a parent asked us to go to their home to talk about their child’s progress – and this would usually be a small number of pastoral leaders who would be trained for these situations – it would be a situation you would prepare for so that you conducted yourself in the right way. Now that all of our teachers are regularly doing virtual home visits, we have had to learn as we go and we quickly developed some new rules of conduct.


Family circumstances

Being sensitive to the different circumstances of families is fundamental. We must be sensitive and respectful of the fact that they are trusting us and welcoming us into their home. A considerable number of our families live in quite difficult circumstances with a high level of deprivation, including shared or temporary accommodation, and this brings additional considerations and sensitivity requirements.

The most vital piece of new etiquette is to establish a common understanding with a family of how the virtual meeting is going to run. Will it be on video or will the cameras be turned off?

For some of our families, being ready to welcome visitors into the home, albeit virtually, is culturally a very important consideration. In the early days we had a situation in which one of our Muslim families had not realised that the call would be on video and the meeting was delayed to allow family members to observe hijab.


Broadcasting from home?

If our teachers are joining parents’ meetings from their homes we ask them to consider their backdrops. It is fine if they want to make it neutral, perhaps by having a blurred or virtual backdrop, in order to maintain that separation between home and school.

But it is also okay if they are happy to have personal pictures and belongings on display during a call. Some of our teachers have said that this often helps to break the ice and strengthen relationships, because the family can see that the teacher is a person with a family, just like them. Often, they can be conversation starters which will relax everyone and ease the way for serious discussions.

I think that the personal touch has actually brought me closer to parents. Since the lockdowns started, I have been delivering weekly video messages on YouTube, often from my home office. My background, with a Banksy-style picture of my son on the wall behind me, became a familiar sight to our parents. One parent, in recognition of this, created a needlepoint Banksy monkey for me which I now proudly display!


The wider family tuning in?

One of the benefits of virtual parents’ meetings is the fact that more members of the family can attend. You could view this as a drawback and indeed this did lead to some confusing calls early on, but we have learned to make these situations an opportunity to forge stronger links with the family. It sounds simple, but being introduced to the wider family – including family pets – creates those connections that transform a school-home relationship into one that is less formal.


Recording and reassurance

There are other advantages to our meetings being online, especially if the meeting is about a safeguarding or pastoral issue. The fact that we can record the meeting gives us and our parents the additional reassurance that everything is on the record.

In the past, teachers have finished phone calls or meetings and wished that it had been recorded, especially if it was particularly challenging. The proactive, upfront recording ensures that there are no misunderstandings. We now find parents will review this recording several times, especially where the home language is different, or to share with a partner who could not attend.

  • Daniel Locke-Wheaton is the principal of Aston University Engineering Academy in Birmingham.


Further information & resources

  • Daniel Locke-Wheaton has contributed his insights to a webinar on using data to engage harder to reach parents hosted by Firefly. Visit https://bit.ly/3hjnSOe
  • Firefly has also produced a guide to support schools develop their virtual parent’s evenings. Visit https://bit.ly/33ygwhL


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