By Maureen McTaggart
Now that a visit to a school website and the mere click of a mouse are capable of providing parents with timely and meaningful information about their children’s progress, little Bart and Lisa shouldn’t have to wait until the annual parents’ evening to be praised for their brilliant stories or homework.
But according to Becta’s new Oh Nothing Much report, that is exactly what is NOT happening, and parents say they still feel excluded by schools. Now the Government’s technology agency is calling for more online resources so that parents can become more involved in their children’s learning.
The report, which surveyed 1,000 children aged 11 to 14 and their parents, says that although 82 per cent of parents wished they had more information about their children’s school life, they have to rely on updates from their offspring. The problem is that pupils don’t like to be “hassled” by parental inquiries. Only 16 per cent of the children surveyed admit to volunteering information about their day at school and nearly half (44 per cent) said they don’t like sharing things with their parents, preferring to keep their school day private.
With parents describing feeling “excluded”, the result, says the report, could include the hampering of a child’s achievement, stress in the parent-child relationship and tension “between parent and school as the packed school itinerary gets lost in translation”.
Tanya Byron, the child psychologist and television presenter, was in charge of the investigation and she agrees that, given the importance of parental involvement in children’s achievement, there should be better links between schools, parents and children. Being able to see what their children are learning allows parents to confidently talk about schoolwork with their children and teachers.
"Many parents anxiously question their kids at the end of the school day and this creates tension, conflict and a lack of essential communication," says Professor Byron. “By creating a collaborative, three-way dialogue between parents, school and children; by harnessing the new and exciting technologies that enable seamless communication between school and home; and – most importantly – by involving children in after-school communication that is fun, relaxed, open and well timed, we can all help them to maximise their academic potential and enjoy their school and further education years."
Given the amount of administrative work teachers have to deal with, is this a reasonable request? Yes, according to the evidence from schools already using online reporting methods. This suggests that teachers spend less time generating three reports a year online than they do producing just one by hand. More important, the anytime, anywhere aspect of online reporting not only gives teachers greater control and flexibility of their time but having access to students’ grades and progress in other subjects gives them the bigger picture.
Surveys reveal no change in six months
However, these results are almost identical to those of a similar survey conducted by Becta six months previously – no progression was recorded. The majority (81 per cent) of the 1,493 parents in that survey also wanted more feedback from their children’s schools and the same proportion had to wait until parents’ evening to get a progress report. And two thirds thought schools should use technologies such as text messaging and the internet to communicate with them more frequently.
The big question here is how this kind of communication can be implemented with schools, and whether they, and parents, are ready. Indications are that there is some way to go. Jonathan Boyle, deputy headteacher at Madeley Academy, Telford, is an expert ICT user, but even he has doubts about schools’ and parents’ readiness for this change in culture.
“Having experience of nearly 20 years in teaching an ICT-driven subject, design and technology, I should be the greatest supporter of online reporting and text messaging and was until recently,” he says. "I see the reality of working with students and teachers in sometimes very challenging circumstances. Text messaging can be thwarted by rapidly changing phone numbers and a hierarchy of who gets what. Senior teachers with the responsibility of contacting parents will understand this. Contracts end and ‘pay and go’ deals mean that phones bought with a SIM card and some credit becomes the new phone without informing others.
“Similarly, although I want to use email, there are variables to overcome. These include families without access and those with access but without the know how to prevent a child from accessing their email. How many parents have their email set up by their children? We must be inclusive to all and not preclude anyone.
“I believe that regular and personal ICT-driven reporting from school and mailed to parents and guardians is still the correct way to go for many. I am sure that for some schools email and text is ideal, but for others there are more fundamental issues to address first and those parents for whom immediate feedback is necessary will be getting personal contact from the school. I am ready for the future and always an early adopter, but will be maximising the use of ICT within the school to help inform parents using snail mail for now.”
Janet Chapman, assistant head and ICT champion at Central Foundation Girls' school in Tower Hamlets, London, shares some concerns: “We keep in touch with parents by sending out a monthly E-newsletter by email and by putting notices and copies of all letters that go out on our parents page on the MLE [managed learning environment]. We have also set up a system whereby parents can check their daughters’ attendance and achievement online. We do this in addition to termly written reports.
“The main issue for us with online communication is the low level of some parents ICT skills, particularly within the Bengali community. We are addressing this with Parents ICT classes. The other issue is home internet access, although this is improving - helped by the Computers for Pupils initiative and a grant from the E-learning foundation.”
Time for more guidance and support?
There is no doubting the agency’s commitment, but maybe it’s time for Becta to come up with some detailed guidance, encouragement and possibly targets to help schools move forward so that when the next survey is done some real progress will be recorded. "Becta believes passionately that the effective use of technology both in schools and at home is hugely rewarding for learners and allows parents to become more involved in their child's education,” says Stephen Crowne, Becta’s chief executive.
“Many schools across the country are already using technology in innovative yet practical ways to communicate with parents – from communicating with parents via text messages, to online reporting and lesson planning. We'd encourage any parent wanting to find out more about how technology could help them communicate better to start talking to their school to find out what is on offer.”
A full copy of the Oh Nothing Much report is available for download at the Next Generation Learning website:
Tanya Byron is writing an Oh Nothing Much blog for the next four weeks