ICT is fuelling the growing momentum for parental engagement. Gerald Haigh explains how

Parent supporting child's workParents are key to learning (pic: James Hallybone)It’s growing fast and on its way to a school near you. Parents want it, and schools know it drives achievement. Yes, folks, it’s online parental engagement, and it’s a challenge that’s throwing up some important questions for school leaders.

For example, do you use the online access tool from your own management information system (MIS) to provide a way in for parents – Serco’s Facility e-Portal, or Capita’s SharePoint-based SIMS Learning Gateway for example?

Or do you use an add-on product such as Tasc Software’s Insight that picks up the MIS data and presents it in a user-friendly form?

Or do you go down a different sort of route and start with parent access to your proprietary VLE (virtual learning environment), or your own SharePoint learning platform. drawing MIS data into the mix?

At this stage, it would be foolish even to speculate on which solution is best, or whether that’s even a sensible question. So much depends on your own school circumstances – not least where you’re starting from.

A good introduction is to look at the five parental engagement case studies – video and written -- on Microsoft’s website. Secondaries featured are Monkseaton, Twynham and Blatchington Mill, and two primaries, Clunbury and Hawes Side. In each, the school has looked beyond basic data access, and worked to bring parents on board with the children’s learning. The secondary approach, typically, has to been to build a SharePoint learning platform that becomes a collaborative space for teachers, students and parents.

To my mind the studies are essential viewing and reading because even if you don’t want to go the same way technically, there’s much to learn from the vision and drive that’s on show at each school.

'We can only do so much if parents aren’t backing us'

Taking a different route is Michael Cousins, assistant head at Sacred Heart High School in Newcastle. He has responsibility for raising achievement and also oversees the school’s use of Tasc Software’s Insight, and he makes a direct link between the two responsibilties: “The single biggest thing that has an effect on whether students do well is parental support. We do a fantastic job here, but we can only do so much if parents aren’t backing us.”

Easington Colliery Primary School parentEasington parents: 'absolutely fantastic'It’s evident that one of the killer features of Insight is ease of use. Here’s Samantha Smith, mum to three children in Sturminster Newton High School: “I’m no good at reading instructions. I like to be able to work through something and I found I could do that with the Insight system. The school does provide an idiot’s guide but I’ve never read it. I learned it by playing with it.”

Among authorities that are taking up Insight for all their schools is Warwickshire. The county is currently rolling it out to provide parental access to SIMS data alongside its RM Kaleidos learning platforms with the same single sign-in.

There’s no doubt that parents do want to support their children in school. At Capita’s annual SIMS Conference this year, Easington Colliery Primary School head Harry Weightman, getting started with Capita’s SIMS Learning Gateway, introduced some very attractive parent videos. One beaming dad, speaking about how pleased he is to be seeing information on his daughter, uses the phrase “Absolutely fantastic” three times in a 90-second clip.

'Government targets miss the point – parents getting engaged in learning'

Yet another creative approach is developing at Costello Technology College in Basingstoke, where the school’s Frog VLE is configured to use SIMS MIS data to provide parents with a rounded picture of what their children are doing. Dominic Tester (pictured below), assistant head responsible for e-learning strategy at Costello, says, “The government targets for getting data out to parents actually miss the point, which is about parents becoming engaged in the process of learning.”

What Costello’s heading for, then, is the creation of a learning community where parents can see and engage with the work that’s being set for their children. They can talk to their children about the work, maybe ask the teacher some questions and consider doing some learning of their own.

He was quick to see, though, that any kind of top-down, ‘this is what we think you should see’  approach rather misses the point: “We needed to know what they wanted to be able to do, rather than telling them what we wanted to offer.”

The first step at Costello then, in October 2008, was to set up a focus group of 15 volunteer parents. The level of interest was never in doubt, and the first focus group meeting, scheduled for 90 minutes, lasted for three hours. Eventually, parents and teachers together came up with a menu of what parents felt they’d like to be able to see and what the school and the learning platform were able to provide. Interestingly – and this is borne out by experience in other schools – statutory information such as that on attendance wasn’t among the highest priorities.

Dominic TesterDominic Tester“It came about the middle of the leaderboard,” says Dominic Tester. What parents certainly did want was information about the work that was being set for their children – the tasks, the deadlines. And they also wanted to be able to see the supporting resources, and be able to get help interpreting them. That, rather than keeping a running check on attendance marks and test grades, was what they meant by engaging with their children’s learning.

Parent governor Clare Owen, who has been involved in the parental engagement project throughout, says. “From the parents’ perspective, helping with homework has often meant deciphering three words in a homework diary – such as ‘Do question 7’.”

The position now at Costello is that parents as well as seeing attendance and behaviour data, can see when an assignment is set, then click on the lesson plan and go through to the supporting resources which might be a template for writing, or a document, video material, vocabulary lists or a podcast.

Another popular feature, especially for families of younger children, is the ability to see the individual timetables, so that parents can make sure their children arrive properly equipped for PE or cooking. Costello parents are also interested in being able to communicate both with each other and with teachers, and a number of forums and social networking-style features are developing to accommodate this. Gradually, too, as teachers and departments become more aware of the implications of true parental engagement, they’re starting to look at constructing assignments that draw parents in to work with their children.

Already it’s possible to discern a tumbling of walls and boundaries

It’s still early days for online parental engagement at Costello, but already it’s possible to discern a tumbling of walls and boundaries. This is a school that’s well on the way to building a true learning community, binding together teachers, parents, students and governors.

At first glance, it looks as if we’re discussing different approaches to parental engagement here – one that starts with pupil data and the MIS, and another that starts with the VLE. The truth, though, is that increasingly the two are coming together.

An apparently data-orientated system, like Insight, can broaden out to show timetables, homework assignments and deadlines and provide for parent feedback. And SIMS Learning Gateway, being SharePoint-based, can, and eventually will, overlap with a range of VLE functions. Frankly, though, the jury’s still out on how far this sharing or overlapping – there’s even uncertainty about the terms to use – can go. The good thing for the moment is that there’s choice, and Warwickshire’s combination of VLE and Insight is a good example of what can be done.

Parental engagement – key lessons

  • Your VLE and your MIS shouldn’t be kept in watertight compartments. You need to explore how they can work together for effective parental engagement. Parents need a one-stop shop with a single sign-in.
  • Ask parents what they want, but consult other stakeholders too including staff and students.
  • Parents want the opportunity to feed back to the school, even at the simplest level of “We were pleased to read about Jane’s certificate.’ They’ll want Forums, too, to discuss things among themselves.
  • Take on board staff concerns on workload. Experience across schools is that better home-school relationships can actually reduce workload.
  • Attend to the quality of data that’s available to parents. Registers need to be accurate, and parent contact details correct and up to date. Behaviour records must not name other children involved in incidents. Experience shows there’s much work to do in these areas.
  • Know where you’re going with the policy. Dominic Tester says, “It’s important for the school to look at what true parental engagement might look like in two or three years time, to ensure the the priorities line up with the school development plan and the self evaluation framework.”
  • Be aware that eventually everything about the school will be affected by easier and better parent engagement – lesson planning, resources, record keeping, behaviour policies, student motivation and attainment.
  • Impact on results is difficult to measure because parental engagement usually goes along curriculum transformation. At the same time, teachers are convinced that better support at home, and the opportunity to react more quickly to queries and problems, has a positive effect.


Costello uses the Frog Learning Platform, finding that it’s possible to tailor it to the school’s vision for learning and for parental engagement.

Becta has a large amount of material on parental engagement, with case studies. www.becta.org.uk/engaging.php

Tanya Byron’s “Oh, Nothing Much Report” (which did much to inspire Dominic Tester) is at www.nextgenerationlearning.org.uk/AboutUs/Research/ohnothingmuch/

You can read about Harry Weightman’s Sims Conference presentation on Ray Fleming’s Microsoft Schools Blog. The videos from Harry’s school are available there too.

The Sims Annual Conference 2010 presentations, including "Hard to reach: Harry Weightman", are available here.

You can follow Dominic Tester on Twitter.

Gerald HaighGerald Haigh is a freelance journalist and the author of Inspirational – and Cautionary – Tales for Would be School Leaders (Routledge) and Jobs and Interviews Pocketbook (Teachers' Pocketbooks)  His regular Five Things To Think About columns can be seen on the National College's Future website.
You can follow Gerald Haigh on Twitter.