Are schools getting the message about newsletters?

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School newsletters – those crumpled pieces of paper found, all too often, at the bottom of a schoolbag long after they are dispatched – are a humble but important part of school-home communication. In this article, Joanna Apps and Kevin Brewster, analyse the messages they convey. crumpled ball of paper Finding the best way to engage parents in their children’s education is a hot topic. Most research and practice in this area looks at face to face contact between teachers and parents. But day to day the vast majority of school-home communication is in written form. Websites, newsletters – and, more recently, texts- have become a big part of how information is conveyed to parents. Of these forms of communication, newsletters are the most commonly used. But surprisingly, there is very little UK research on how newsletters are – or could be – used to build relationships between schools and parents and help support children’s learning. So in the Research Centre for Children, Families and Communities (RCfCFC) we decided to conduct our own research on this. We wanted to know what information newsletters contain, what tone and visual style are used, how they are used to build relationships with parents and help them to support their children’s learning at home and what parents think about them. The study was small – we looked at publically available newsletters* on the websites of 18 randomly selected state primary schools in England -and the results were interesting. The information contained in newsletters was very varied. And they carried a lot of information. The average number of items in those we looked at was around nine but some letters had as many as 23 items. There was information on dates of trips, not parking on the school drive (frequently) and in a smaller number of cases information on how to help support your child’s learning. There was a wide range of information and types of message conveyed in the text and images used. The use of visuals, in particular, sometimes led to a mismatch between the tone of the messages conveyed. For example, strong and authoritarian visual imagery such as red no parking signs and hazard signs were used next to text inviting parents to events or requesting parents support:

no parkingParking

Parents should not park in front of the school entrance as this makes it difficult for staff and deliveries to reach the school safely. Thank you Events The children are very excited at this time of year and we have many wonderful activities planned, which we hope parents will be able to join us for…

 

triangle warning sign with exclamation markPlease help your child settle in by leaving them at the classroom door. Thank you

Some newsletters were quite prescriptive and advised parents on aspects of home life and parenting that had an impact at school, for example, getting enough sleep:

Bedtimes Some children are coming into school too tired to learn well. It is vital that children get to bed at a reasonable time. This should be by 9pm at the latest.

And parking and driving were often mentioned, appearing to be an ongoing battle played out between schools and parents:

Some parents persistently drive dangerously when coming to school, disregarding the speed limit and putting pedestrians at risk. There is continuous parking on yellow lines which is hazardous…

But those school newsletters that stood out clearly had building good relationships with parents as a priority. Some schools thanked parents for supporting their children’s learning through good attendance and reading at home with them or built support through shared concerns. For example, explaining restrictions on taking holidays in term time:

I know how hard it can be to book holidays outside term time- I have to follow exactly the same guidelines as parents do, for my own family holidays. Last Summer the cheapest short break away we could find would have cost £4,000! But the Department for Education requires that all schools’ attendance is over 95 %…

Others were very personal, naming individual children and praising them for their sporting and academic achievements and good behaviour. As part of our research we also asked a small sample of parents about their views on getting information from websites, newsletters and texts. The parents we spoke to said they used websites only as a backup for obtaining very basic school information such as term dates. Texts were seen as a means of getting vital information quickly to parents, such as school closures, but not suitable for other communication to support children’s learning. But parents valued the newsletter- whether hard copy or electronic. In particular, the newsletter was seen by one parent to be the best way to give all parents access to the same information:

“There’s always the fear that you don’t have the same information as other parents but if everybody is receiving the same information then parents know that their children are receiving the same opportunities.”

There is more work to be done on our study but it is interesting to think that with all the communication options open to us, that crumpled piece of paper (or its emailed incarnation), may still have a role to play. And so it could be well worth thinking carefully about its contents and the messages it conveys. *For copyright reasons each of  the examples shown are compilations and not verbatim excerpts

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