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The rise of parental engagement

When I first started teaching, parental engagement consisted of yearly reports, yearly parents’ evenings and a phone call home to the same few parents every other week. Parents had no access to live student data and had no way to communicate directly with teachers other than picking up the phone, which usually went through to an answerphone. As far as I was concerned engaging parents more meant more workload and to say my colleagues were struggling with workload was putting it lightly; many were crumbling under the pressure.

Staff profile picture Ben DunfordApr 20  -  3 minute read
Parent teaching child

A couple of years into my teaching career, I came up with the idea for an online platform of points and badges that would boost student motivation and save teachers a lot of admin time. Several local schools loved it and brought into the idea, but I didn’t even consider allowing parents access, because of my workload concerns. So, for the first three years parents were not part of the system, having to rely on their children showing them the points and badges that they had been awarded. This worked OK for younger secondary age students, but parents with children of other ages were effectively excluded.

A couple years later, as I was working on a separate tool for parental communication, it was becoming clear that engaging parents could have a really big impact and I’d been short-sighted to not include them from the start. I added them to the system and revised the company motto to ‘Motivate students, engage parents and save teachers time’, making parents equally important as students and teachers in the process. Initially parent uptake was slow, and schools were hesitant as I had been myself, but as schools began to realise how important it was to involve them, more parents started to use the platform and so we built more functionality for them.

Since then, a lot has changed. Schools can now choose from a number of platforms that offer their parents live access to children’s data across areas such as attendance, assessment, achievement, behaviour, homework and more. Prompts such as emails and push notifications encourage parents to be more aware of this data and new communication tools allow parents to have a convenient way to directly engage with their children’s teachers. Smartphones have made it easier for parents to engage when away from a computer; our mobile app usage has more than doubled every year and parent app usage exceeds both students and teachers.

Parental engagement has been transformed in the past 5 years in those schools that have embraced these new technologies. A Department for Education’s paper on parental engagement noted that:

The more engaged parents are in the education of their children the more likely their children are to succeed in the education system

And in 2019 they released their EdTech strategy for which parental engagement is the first ‘challenge’ discussed. Any concerns I had about increasing teacher workload were unfounded; improving parental engagement helps with teacher workload, because you can reach out to parents more easily and because you have more motivated students. Knowing your parents can see your behaviour and attendance is a powerful motivator but so is the praise you might receive when you’ve done something good. Schools that don’t embrace these changes risk getting left behind, wasting both time and money on out-of-date systems that are no longer fit for purpose. The good news is that most schools are making really good use of these new technologies, reaping the benefits in the process, and as these technologies continue to be refined and revised, the impact on parent engagement will continue to grow.

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