In an age of digital communication, it can sometimes seem as if schools are stuck in the past, pecking missives on ancient Olivetti typewriters, and sending them to parents via the often unreliable carrier pigeon of their pupils. Social Media can help, but it is not the perfect solution. We take a look at ways in which schools can update and improve communication with parents.
‘We won’t believe half the things your child tells us happen at home, if you promise not to believe half the things your child tells you about school’
So runs a joke beloved of teachers. I discovered the value of the maxim on the day when I dropped an almost-full carton of ludicrously overpriced coconut water on my kitchen floor, slipped in the resulting puddle, and indulged myself in a choice expletive or two. My six-year-old daughter’s teacher later confessed that the story had been relayed to her as ‘Mummy lay on the kitchen floor using the F word because all her special juice was gone’. The mortification.
But if parents can’t rely on their children to adequately relay the important stuff, that’s all the more reason why they rely on the school to do so instead. Unfortunately, this seems to be an area where even the loveliest of schools often fall down. The frustration is mutual; schools feel that no matter how hard they try, it’s never enough. A growing crop of online options seeks to address the gap, but does it create more confusion?
Keeping communications in print is time-consuming for staff, who have to print, photocopy and mail them out, or paste them into student diaries. And woe betide the school who expects loose notes to travel safely from school to home in a student backpack; they can very easily get lost, requiring more time on the part of the school to follow up. The environmental impact is another reason to switch away from paper.
So is online the answer? The forward-thinking Head of RHS Bath, Rebecca Dougall, certainly thinks so. Her school uses Facebook and Twitter to communicate with parents, and while she acknowledges that some parents find new social media technology challenging, she believes that the challenge is a positive one. “We can act as a bridge of understanding between young people who wish to use Social Media, and their parents who reject it”, she explains. “If [children] see social media as a communication tool that adults use, then they feel they are joining the digital community, and that they must be mature in their usage of it.” (Read the rest of our interview with Ms Dougall here)
But not everybody uses Twitter, and parents may be reluctant to sign up just to get communications for their child’s school. Facebook has more than twice the uptake – 1.4 billion users versus 650 million on Twitter – but the ever-changing algorithms mean that not every parent will see every school update, with other parents not using the site at all. Email is another option, and there are a growing number of apps that look to solve the problem.
Online or offline, there are several things that all schools – and parents – can do to improve communication.
Don’t assume that everyone knows the jargon. Often, the people who are helping with school communications are the PTA, who tend to have years of school-parent experience under their belt and forget that the new parents might not know what’s what. One parent I spoke to said that her daughter missed the annual ‘Formal dance’ because she thought it was aimed at older children than hers – the flyer didn’t specify that it was an event where Dads took their young daughters dancing, because ‘everybody knew that already’.
Don’t assume that every child lives in a two-parent household. If you’re emailing communications, make sure your system allows for two email addresses against one child’s name. If you send out parent feedback forms, newsletters or school reports, send two. Without exception, the parents interviewed who share custody struggled with finding out information from the other parent. Dads, especially, felt excluded by the single-point-of-contact model.
Be consistent. All parents have email and almost all have smartphones. Most of them use Facebook; many will be on Twitter. That means that schools have a wide array of options. All too often, though, texts are sent for some things, physical notes for others, and emails for yet others. A parent searching for information on an upcoming parent-teacher night doesn’t want to have to check every conduit of information. Choose a medium, or two media, and let parents know that it’s their responsibility to check those regularly.
Nobody wants schools to take away more time from teaching children. The best solution is one that will free up school resources but offer parents some consistency of communication – while making sure that nobody ever has to scrabble in a sludge of banana-and-sock to find a school note again.
Tanya is a freelance writer and lawyer based in Australia. She writes about parenting, politics, legal and social issues for various publications and at her own website.