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Communication, communication, communication.....

As I work with families through the Finding Common Ground project, a number of common themes recur. Over a number of posts I plan to consider these themes and consider possible strategies that those of us who work in education can consider to increase our collaboration with, and support from, parents & carers.

Let's start from first principles: We are aiming to create an environment where honest, open conversations can be had between the school and the family around the needs of the child. We will not always agree, but discussion of what is possible and what constitutes best practice, based on an acceptance that we are all wanting the best for the child, is where we aim to be.

Communication seems to lie at the heart of many of the issues that I work on with families. Sometimes the issues come up in the educational press - for example an article about vexatious parents and Warwick Mansell's excellent piece about the misuse of Classcharts (one of the electronic communication systems used by schools). But mainly it is the day to day misunderstandings and misinterpretations that cause a great deal of anxiety and unnecessary stress for families and school staff.

3 simple points to think about:

Consider the impact....

A parent/carer can receive a very large number of messages via school electronic systems across the course of a week - attendance, pastoral issues, general notices etc.... Consider how these fit together and carefully consider the tone and language used. As an example, the current attendance letters used by most schools are harsh and formal. Now this may be required for some families, but is it needed for all? Communications about sanctions are likewise very formal - for a child or family with mental health needs or one where sanctions are incredibly rare, are they appropriate?

Consider who says what....

The other week I was talking to a parent of a child who had wandered off instead of waiting outside a classroom. A member of the pastoral team had emailed about the matter, which is what would be expected, but had threatened suspension if it occurred again. Was it appropriate for that member of staff to make that threat when they don't have power to implement it? Likewise attendance messages and pastoral messages con often conflict, particularly when there are additional needs such as EBSA (emotionally-based school avoidance) involved. Educating families about who has the power to make which decision in a school is important - if a parent of a child with SEND wishes to identify a serious problem in their child's Maths lesson for example it is important that they understand that the SENCO generally has an advisory role and also that the school is generally not going to allow direct contact with the Maths teacher due to the number of students that member of staff will see in a week. They need to be in contact with the Head of Department. Ensuring that parents and carers understand these systems reduces their feelings of powerlessness and frustration.

Consider - who is the face of the school?

Single points of contact are incredibly useful when children are failing to thrive or where the family has significant needs - they can can often act as an interpreter of the messages being sent and pull the threads together. Secondary schools can be very faceless institutions, resulting either in no communication from the family or the "scattergun" email approach where the parent/carer gets so frustrated that they email absolutely everyone they can think of for every minor issue! I spoke recently with a member of staff at a school who was seeking to make their school less "faceless" - single points of contact can really help, but the boundaries of communication must be clearly defined (ie one email or catch-up phonecall a week rather than expecting a daily update). Don't underestimate the power of personal contact, but manage it carefully because of the obvious workload issues...

Nothing earth-shattering here! Just don't underestimate the impact of simple communication strategies on the relationship that schools have with families....

As always, I am happy to discuss any of this with anyone. The Finding Common Ground project offers individual support to parents and carers, advice to individual members of school staff and training for schools ( This post is based on the experience of working with individual parents and carers where their children are failing to thrive in school,.

James Harris

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