Two Years ago I started a new job. I had been asked to lead a school that had been through a very difficult time. An OFSTED inadequate judgement is always traumatic for a school, its staff and the community. What can be overlooked is how this type of judgment destroys the trust between parents and school. Over the past two years, and often in difficult circumstances we have tried to re-engage and rebuild our relationship with our parents, I hope these thoughts and ideas are helpful.
Run towards difficult messages
It is also most two years to the day that I held my first “town hall” style meeting with Year 10 parents. The format was simple – I would present to them my vision for where the school would be going, outline the initial steps I would take and perhaps foolishly, would invite them ask me any questions they may have. These meetings were not pleasant, and what came through was despite my plans and actions many parents just wanted the chance to tell me how they felt. And they were angry and frustrated that in their words, they had been lied to. At various points parents expressed dismay at poorly thought-out school strategy, weak leadership but most of all what they felt was the inability to be honest. Over the course of two or three months I completed this activity with almost all year groups, and whilst they were not comfortable in the slightest it provided great insight into how our community felt. If we don’t know how our stakeholders feel, how can we serve them?
The most upset parents want to speak to the Headteacher and in the early phases of rebuilding a school reputation you can’t pass off these meetings. For a period of months each day a parental meeting appeared in my diary, and my real role was to listen. Whilst the messages were difficult it was valuable experience.
Throughout these difficult first months all a Headteacher could do was acknowledge where the school had fallen short, challenge words that were said that we untrue, but begin to shape a better message. This message of where the school could go together, despite the difficulty needed to be clear and articulated well. It actually started with the pupils – “in this room could be the future prime minister or the person who cures cancer” is still a phrase I use in every assembly.
As time has moved on there has been less of a need for me to take the town hall style route. Parents have increasingly felt the school is moving in the right direction (it is – recognised by OFSTED) but the overall principles of our communication strategy haven’t changed, just the execution. As we entered lockdown one in March 2020 it quickly became obvious that the “noise” as I call it’ (uncertainty in our school community caused by media) could be a real distraction. To counteract this we made the decision to write to parents at least twice per week to keep them informed about something school-related. It sounds easy as a Headteacher to write to parents twice per week. It really isn’t.
However, parents become accustomed to hearing news about school, and in a pandemic it is comforting for them (and I say this as a parent of two school age children) that a school strives to connect with its key stakeholders.
It has also never been more important to over-communicate key information to parents so there is clarity. I must have written “thank you” to our parents in over a thousand different ways over the past twelve months, and each time I do it I like to think it cements are emerging school culture. The same applies to how we engage with staff. During lockdown one I wrote a Daily Email to all staff, sometimes it was just a “keep going – you are all ace” but it was vital so they felt connected to each other. This is not easy – and the discipline to do that each day is a challenge. Since January 7th there have been 18th editions of Daily Message 2. It is worth the effort.
Drop the Breadcrumbs
As we have grown more used to communicating two or three times a week it has been far easier to prepare the ground for changes that we wish to make to the provision we offer. Imagine a trail of breadcrumbs that lead someone to a new place (or new initiative). In our communication we often hint at things that may happen over the coming weeks. We did this most effectively when three weeks ago we made the decision to move year 10 away from full time live lessons each day to one lesson set through Satchel 1. We shared our thinking with parents a few weeks in advance, and when the change was made it all happened very smoothly. This type of thinking can also be applied with leading staff and supporting them. I suppose sharing a plan well advance, but in a digestible way helps people understand and then deliver on that plan.
Use the Tech
It’s 2021 – use the tech you have! We often use YouTube to share messages, and it makes a huge difference. When we had to isolate pupils due to Covid we often recorded a walkthrough message for parents that outlined how their child could access their remote provision, the online learning expectation and how they could support their child. This was often sent on the evening a parent learnt their child had to isolate.
We do the same with assemblies, and have used this with Year 11 pupils and parents every few weeks. The opportunities for spreading your school message are almost unlimited.
And obviously, every letter home gets posted on Twitter!
Our communication planning is built on the notion that the school does not exist for the staff. It is for the pupils and parents – our job is to serve them. They need to be clear what is going on, and we need to build that narrative, not just a little, not just a lot, but relentlessly. There has never been a more important time to engage with your community. If you make it a priority it will make a difference. Professional school communications shouldn’t be a bolt on. Trust me on that.