Christina Preston, founder of the MirandaNet Fellowship, guest blogs today, exploring how involving parents in their children’s education improves their school attainment. Christina is an Education Researcher and Professor, focusing on using ICT and digital innovations to enrich both teaching and learning.
As an education researcher who investigates the effect and value of innovations in teaching and learning (usually where ICT is involved) I came upon Groupcall through online discussion with members of the MirandaNet Fellowship. I founded MirandaNet in 1992, an international community of professional educators from all phases of education who research and implement digital innovations for the benefit of teachers and learners.
I had also come across Groupcall’s suite of products as a judge of the BETT Show held annually at Excel, London. I realised that, although the software provides a significant support for administrators and bursars in running the school, Groupcall products also have an impact on the context in which pupils are learning. MirandaNet Fellows discovered some profound and positive changes in the relationships between parents or carers, the school and the children that are pleasing to the company founder, Sir Bob Geldof.
When I interviewed Sir Bob a couple of years ago (see video) he remembered his own troubled childhood growing up in Ireland, which resulted in him not attending school regularly, meaning he lacks the formal education that he would have liked. A particular concern for him was the children like himself whose attendance at school was not regular. He illustrated his point colourfully,
“From a truancy point of view, as a country we really need high levels of education or we are going to fall behind. If kids aren't in school, what's going to happen? Lying out there right now is some kid who could, conceivably, be a genius, but we won't know because he's either in bed, in a bowling alley, drinking or taking some drug or another.”
Sir Bob is one of those troubled geniuses. He is also a doer. So instead of just bewailing the fate of disadvantaged and troubled children, he found clever designers to develop software that would help teachers to keep track of their pupils’ attendance. The company he jointly founded, Groupcall, provides a service that ensures that as soon as a child is found to be absent from school, at any time in the school day, teachers can message the parents or carers on their mobile phones. Sir Bob was uncompromising in celebrating this product,
“This system helps keeps kids in school. Fact.”
Groupcall now produces a family of products for teachers, administrators, parents and carers that integrate with most school MIS systems. This suite covers the needs of a school for good communications while handling sensitive data and managing identities. Groupcall is expert in training teachers to ensure that data is secure, which is particularly important where vulnerable children are involved.
The MirandaNet research was titled, Parental engagement, digital home-school links and pupil achievement. Firstly, in terms of parental engagement, many of the teachers interviewed mentioned that parents in disadvantaged areas are not always comfortable coming back into school for meetings. One parent remarked that, until Groupcall was installed, they were only called in because of their child’s misbehaviour – reminding her too much of her own school days. But Groupcall is not all about the communication of negative events and as she received more and more regular good news she was tempted to join a parents’ class to learn about how to use the software and mobile devices. Her relationships with teachers became friendly and positive.
One of the most striking examples of success in parental engagement is related to male parents and carers. The fathers of disadvantaged children are particularly reluctant to come into school because they have often had a bad experience of school in their own childhood. However, lack of technical confidence amongst fathers can be a bridge that encourages them to attend lessons about digital technologies. Once the technical issues are addressed and relationships are formed, teachers found they could work with the fathers about parenting issues. The example was a technical class that also focused on their concerns about their child’s digital footprint and a means of obtaining information and advice about managing their child’s achievements. The sense of community in a face-to-face class was reinforced by the use of a virtual learning environment to which teachers, pupils and parents have appropriate access.
Secondly, teachers gave us many examples of how digital home-school links were valuable: timely contact with parents and carers quickly via mobile phones could make a significant difference to a pupil’s achievement over time. Some examples were quick wins,
“Lack of work from a student. Texted home. Student received a reminder text from parents. Student returned that same day to apologise and catch up”.
“Through weekly email updates to parents we were able to motivate the student to complete the task and to a high standard. In this way, parents and teacher were working together and updating each other on a weekly basis.”
Other examples required pinpoint pupil achievement. One school leader explained,
“We had one child who arrived at a school after sporadic schooling in the past. The child had been a looked-after child and when arriving at this school was at least two full levels behind their peer group. We met the parents and explained our assessment plan. We then put in place a range of interventions and invited the parents to attend those sessions. Support materials were placed on the internet and a partnership between home and school established through regular messaging on mobile phones. Within one term the child had gained two sub-levels and was closing the gap with peers. By the end of the year this child had reached the same level as their peers. The impact of interventions was only this powerful due to home-school partnership.”
A key purpose of this research project was to provide evidence of impact for Pupil Premium and OFSTED that teachers can use in their reports on achievement. Firstly, the Fellows explored the existing research about how digital communications help to bridge the gap between home and school. The findings about the most significant impact on learning achievement were dependent on good relationships between teachers, parents and pupils. In particular the confidence of parents in the school increased when they were receiving regular communications on their smartphones. The impact of the products depended on teachers’ working within the home context. Four categories were established as relevant:
- the socio-economic status of the family;
- the parents’ awareness about the impact of the media;
- the style of parenting that is prevalent;
- the availability of home–school digital links.
This study followed up with a survey to teachers in fifty-five schools nationwide about whether technology saved them time in tasks like registration and whether they could inform parents quickly about a child’s absence: approximately half the respondents were MirandaNet members. The key findings show how teachers’ attitudes to digital administration and support have become more positive over the last five years;
- two thirds of teachers who currently use pen and paper for registration would now consider using digital tools; a significant cultural change;
- half the teachers used devices given to them by the school, mainly iPads and mini-iPads. The iPad is the most desired amongst those who do not have devices.
- Registration products in use varied significantly in quality and reliability and teachers were interested in how schools leaders can distinguish between the good and the bad: word of mouth, professional organisations’ recommendations and awards like the BETT and the Education Show were considered to be valuable.
- Teachers were concerned about the lack of time for the increased complexities of their job. Indeed one third of teachers would welcome the opportunity to save time with digital administration because they are given no planning and preparation time in their working day. Of the others the majority only have 2 hours for planning and preparation. Several teachers expressed the concern that this situation would worsen.
- A clear trend that was that about 20% of the teachers in this sample would value extra time to: improve their subject knowledge; join CPD programmes; and, to engage in personal research and study.
The results of this survey show that teachers are now using technology far more in their professional and personal lives. As a result they better understand the value of products like the Groupcall suite. Now teachers have a responsibility to help to ensure that the 'digital divide' does not widen between the ‘haves’ and the ‘haves not’. The good news is that the majority of parents now have a mobile phone that can be used for the benefit of their children’s education. Careful funding and investment by governments, companies and motivated individuals like Sir Bob Geldof are essential in ensuring that the disadvantaged also benefit from innovations in technology that promote achievement through home and school working together.
Dr Christina Preston, Founder of the MirandaNet and Professor of Education Innovation at De Montfort University
 The MirandaNet Fellowship (mirandanet.ac.uk) is a professional community of educators who are committed to enhancing learning using digital technologies. There are nearly one thousand members in more than eighty countries. As co-researchers, they work in partnership with governments, companies and agencies in research, development and dissemination projects which are designed to share findings about the role of digital technologies in teaching and learning with education professionals around the world.