I am Chair of Governors of a small primary and nursery school in rural Hertfordshire. I am also a chartered public relations practitioner, specialising in the education sector. In my day job I help schools, colleges and universities improve their relationships with groups that matter most to them – including parents.
As schools begin to reopen, the National Governance Association asked me to write about parental engagement in the context of COVID-19, our school experience and my professional practice.
Below I have set out ten points that I hope governing boards will find useful; I have tried to focus on strategic rather than operational matters.
- Healthy relationships require planned and sustained effort. The parents of pupils at our school are overall very engaged and supportive and it is important as a governing board that we recognise this is a result of the hard work of our professional staff over several years. Parent-school relationships during lockdown and in the new term have to be understood in the broader operating context so that a governing board has appropriate expectations of its executive. Don’t wait until its raining to repair the roof, as the saying goes - schools with a poor record of parental engagement or strained relationships are likely to have found it harder to rebuild trust during the turbulence of recent months.
- In times of difficulty our communication needs change. We want to understand specifically what that change might mean for us and those who matter to us. We want regular communications so that we are not left to fill in important blanks with supposition or guesswork. Our trust in an organisation is typically dependent on how honest and open we think it is being. As a school we have sought to operate communications during the pandemic based on these strategic principles. In practical terms that means updates for parents on a far more regular basis than might have been the case, managing expectations by resisting any temptation to promise something we cannot deliver, taking ownership of our decisions and being clear where we are following the directions of Government or its agents.
- Choices about inviting pupils back in the summer term and equivalent decisions that we may face in the new term are operational decisions to be taken by school leaders, considering Government guidance. However, the governing board as a corporate entity remains ultimately accountable for those decisions and in school communications to parents we have been at pains to demonstrate that this has been a collaborative process involving detailed discussion at board level. We felt that it was important to make it explicit to parents that this was collegiate, strategic, considered decision-making.
- As with many governing boards across England, those discussions have required a new way of working. Video conferencing has helped us to operate remotely as a governing board and organise a series of extraordinary meetings during lockdown to keep governors up to date in a fast-changing environment as well as seek views on important issues. These meetings have also been an opportunity to collect immediate feedback from governors about the direct impact of decisions on families and that is likely to continue to be a helpful source of intelligence as we move into the new term.
- Effective communication is a two-way process and alongside ad-hoc insight the school typically puts a lot of effort into collecting parental feedback via surveys during the school year. This is one of the ways that the board can evaluate school performance. In the past, as a school we have generated the strongest set of responses to research of this type by asking parents to (anonymously) complete surveys when they are physically in the building at a particular event. This is not going to be an option for the foreseeable future so we will have to explore other methods; we know that generating equivalent response rates to emailed surveys, for instance, is a big challenge.
- Perhaps we (and other schools) should not be surprised by how positively parents have engaged during what has (and is likely to continue to be) a difficult period. Aristotle distinguished between three different types of friendship: those that are built around shared pleasures, those that include an exchange of goods or services and those that involve friends working together to achieve a public good. In Aristotle’s philosophy, the third type of friendship is the strongest. While the pandemic has meant that shared experiences with parents have been lost – as sports days or fundraising events are cancelled, for instance – collective endeavours to protect public health, as schools and parents collaborate to reduce the risks of infection, are an opportunity to strengthen and cement relationships.
- As a parent myself I can feel a shift in the relationship with school, not least because home schooling has given me insight into the curriculum that I did not possess before. It would seem sensible for all governing boards to expect a different relationship with parents in the future as a result of home schooling experiences and engagement in curriculum content, as well as the broader impacts of the pandemic.
- Although digital channels were already at the core of the school’s communication with parents, their dominance because of the pandemic is likely to have resource implications that the governing board will need to consider. Further specialist training for staff might be required, as well as IT investment. Our school’s new website has been accelerated by current circumstances.
- The working day for our school staff, as with all others, is likely to look different in the new term because of social distancing requirements, restrictions on facilities use, cleaning duties and other factors. It seems important as a governing board that we take this into account when considering staff welfare (and its ramifications for parental engagement).
- In my professional practice I am often asked to help boards evaluate the effectiveness of a school, college or university’s communication with parents and other important groups. One of the commonest problems that I come across in schools is too wide a range of communication channels. When a school spreads its communication with parents too thinly across too many channels the result is typically poor engagement. At times like these, rationalising channels so that parents are very clear how they will be communicated with and when can be very helpful in boosting engagement and making evaluation less onerous.