I am a huge believer that communication is one of the most important aspects of being a Head. But as we emerge from the pandemic, schools are witnessing an increasing problem of over communication from parents and it is having a significant impact. In the past, teachers may have received a relatively large number of messages throughout the day, but they managed to stay on top of these. Sadly, what is now being witnessed nationally, is a growing number of requests from parents for further information across a multitude of things.
Much has been written about the pandemic and how education has been affected, both in the long and short term. I had only started at my school six months prior and was just getting to know my school community when everything turned inside out. Communication needed to happen in every way possible but, for obvious reasons, not in person. So, video calls, phone calls, emails and newsletters were the way in which we communicated – and the more regular, the better.
I believe in open and frank dialogue and I encourage the parents in my school to speak to any of our Senior Leadership Team about any concerns. Like many schools, our Senior Leaders stand at the gates each morning and we often have very meaningful conversations with parents, which serve to allay concerns or inform us of things we had not been aware of. This is one of the most productive and enjoyable times of my day and is key to healthy communication taking place.
Once the gates are shut however, we have seen a growing amount of parental communication coming in, which has significantly increased in volume since before the pandemic. Speaking to other Heads in schools around the country, this now appears to be the norm, and I believe it stems from the need to reach out in so many different ways during the periods of remote learning during lockdown. But I firmly believe it is now time to reset and settle back into the more healthy rhythm of communication known to us before lockdown.
Effective communication with parents is vital because this is where the trust between home and school flourishes. I answer around 150 emails daily to a multitude of different stakeholders, so I have a high bar for myself. But we are now encroaching on unhealthy levels of expectation around communications and I believe we need to consider the impact of this. And it is not just a problem in the independent sector. It was highlighted at the Nasuwt teaching union's annual conference recently, as reported in The Times. The article began: 'Schools should reintroduce parenting contracts to protect teachers from round-the-clock messages from families expecting an immediate reply, a union leader has said.'
For me, the problem is multi-faceted. In my school, the curriculum is fast-paced and dynamic, as our girls are curious learners with a huge appetite for knowledge. The teachers are highly skilled and we recruit staff who enjoy challenging our pupils to nudge themselves out of their comfort zones with ever-challenging approaches to their work. This requires careful planning and marking which, in turn, takes time, expertise, creativity and exploration of new and exciting methods of delivery. This is essential to be able to offer what we do in the way in which we do it. If teachers are now being overstretched, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the time and energy they have left to plan innovative lessons and mark work meaningfully, is dramatically watered down. Sadly, so too is their enthusiasm for the job if they are constantly expected to use their planning time to reply to emails.
I am a parent of three children myself, and it has always been a rather complex path to tread. I am often torn between ‘letting things lie’ or ‘letting school know’. I tend to stick to the former. It has turned out to be a good policy, as invariably, the child who is 'being unkind' one week, is having sleepovers at our house the next, or the teacher who you think is not quite ‘getting’ your child, turns out to be their favourite teacher the following week. Had I sent an email on day one of the concern, I would have created a raft of behind the scenes actions which would have resulted in exactly the same outcome, or in some cases, a less favourable one, after the natural order of things had been disturbed. Of course, there were times when I did send an email, but for the most part, I let the school deal with the issue and this has served us well.
So my suggestion to solve this communications overload is one word: trust. Parents need to trust their child's school and have the confidence to resist sending emails. Indeed, the next time you are poised to send an email on a Friday evening – or straight after morning drop off – please pause. Is it vital for it to be sent? At the very least, title your email 'TO BE READ ON MONDAY', or something similar, so that the recipient knows that you are not expecting an immediate reply. There is nothing worse than having an email hanging over your head all weekend; not least when the issue at hand may well look rather different by Monday morning.
We must protect the mental health of the professionals in our school communities through reducing unnecessary pressure and expectation which comes from having to deal with so many emails. And ultimately, everyone will benefit. So, please, think about the impact of an email before you click send!