There are many occasions when speedy school-home contact is important. Gerald Haigh looks at the software available to help schools make effective links with parents

When two ships of the Royal Navy need to set up a physical link at sea, they first get a line across. Having put it there for a particular reason, it’s clearly sensible to make the most of it and all kinds of stuff travels to and fro along a swaying wire, including the captain’s gin supply, and in at least one case, according to a TV documentary, a young sailor who wanted to see her dad, serving on the other ship.

RECOMMENDED RESOURCE: The Home-School Resource File is designed to help you with the essential work of communicating with parents to develop successful home-school partnerships.

The same principle applies to the automatic calling and texting systems that schools are increasingly using for home-school contact. The line is thrown across for a particular purpose, but once it’s there, it makes sense to use it to the full. (The analogy holds up in other ways too – so, in both cases it is worth remembering, setting up the link is the easy bit. It’s organising the flow of traffic that calls for leadership, effective administration and a bit of creativity.)

The original driver for this particular form of home-school contact was the need to improve school attendance. The 2002 Queen’s Speech pledged the government to tackling truancy; government targets for attendance were imposed; and the whole subject started to hit the headlines.

Schools know that the term ‘truancy’ is often used loosely to mean any form of unauthorised absence. They know, too, that dealing with absence from school is a multi-faceted and largely strategic business involving mentoring, attention to the curriculum, good home-school relations and careful monitoring and following up patterns of non-attendance. There are, though, some quick fixes that can make a contribution, and one is to ensure that unexplained absences are picked up immediately. Once there would often be just a weekly check. Now the aim is that when a child’s away for no known reason, the parents are contacted the same day – preferably soon after registration. It’s a procedure known as First Day Contact.

But how to do it? The necessary information is certainly to hand. Good electronic registration software will tell you very soon after the start of school exactly who is away. All that is necessary is to follow the absence up. Ringing parents manually is possible – it seems nobody’s far away from a phone these days. That, though, is more labour-intensive than it first seems. Some people won’t answer immediately, so you have to ring again, and again. Then the person making the calls will get drawn into conversations and the whole procedure will slow down. Someone, too, needs to log the calls and the answers so as to avoid repetition and later disputes.

Automatic calling systems
This is where automatic calling systems come in. The principle is simple enough. Because the electronic registration software ‘knows’ when a child is away from school for the first time, and because the pupil database also has contact information for the parents stored within a database, it’s not all that difficult to create software which will take the next step and dial the parent’s number automatically. The system will then either ‘speak’ to the parent or leave a recorded message detailing the absence. (‘This is Grumbleweed Academy. We’d like to inform you that Mollie isn’t in school today.’) Then there’s either an automatic answering facility or a dedicated number to ring. A good system offers the facility of calling or texting to whichever landline or mobile number the parents prefer – this increases the likelihood of contacting them. It will also keep trying if there is no response, for as many times as the school wishes.

That seems an easy solution to a time-consuming problem, but we know that school life isn’t really as straightforward as that. Here then are some of the complications that may arise.

As I said at the start, there’s much more to this than just getting the link in place. One of the first things schools learn about applying any kind of ICT to school management is that the procedures have to be right and properly in place before the software can do its job. In this case that means:

  • Making sure that registers are marked accurately and on time. We all know that there are teachers who forget, or are careless and distracted, and maybe can’t keep discipline at registration. That’s annoying and can affect the attendance figures. If you have automatic messaging, though, it’s worse, because inaccurate registration can cause false messages to go out, alarming and annoying parents, undermining faith in the system’s reliability and causing embarrassment for the school.
  • Keeping parent contact details up to date. This isn’t always easy – people change their mobile and home phone suppliers frequently these days, and don’t always keep the same number. Already, in some schools, parents can log into the school database themselves and change their own details, but even so, it’s necessary to keep sending reminders, and checking with the students themselves.
  • Understanding that the two-way flow created by automatic texting will make more work for somebody. That means there are decisions to be made about roles and responsibilities – in the leadership team, at middle management level and in the admin office. You may need a full-time administrator dealing with attendance matters, for example, reporting to an SLT member.
  • Then, even after the register has been accurately done, a moment’s thought says you can’t just let the machine loose on it. Among the children absent on any one day there’ll be some who don’t need chasing up even if technically there’s been no message from the parents. So the system has first to produce a list of who it wants to call, so that it can be filtered before the process starts. In most schools this filtering is done by an admin officer who works with the system regularly and gets to know it, and who usually fields ‘absence calls’ from parents.

Get those things right, though, and the calling system won’t just save the time devoted to the calling process. It will keep an automatic log of the calls it makes, providing an audit trail that will be useful if the authority’s thinking of prosecuting a family. The school will have clear evidence of how often it’s contacted parents and tried to get the child into school. Importantly, too, when they’re properly and efficiently used, the systems work – not just in terms of reducing unauthorised absence, but generally improving home-school contact and relationships.

Extended features
The first suppliers into this market devised their automatic phone/text systems with the express aim of selling them to schools that wanted both to improve attendance and be seen to have a robust system for tackling unauthorised absence. One of the first products was (and still is) called ‘Truancy Call’, although it now does a lot of other things besides.

Other uses, in fact, rapidly became apparent both to suppliers and to the schools themselves, who were concerned that not all parental contact should be based on a negative assumption. So, for example, schools were quickly using automatic texting as a way of sending last minute messages – about bad weather closures, for example. This then developed into more routine contacts (sometimes to selected groups pre-defined on the system) about school events such as sports fixtures, concerts and parents’ meetings. Some schools have used the system for circulating Ofsted’s parent questionnaire. In one case the school actually bought the system for that purpose, although of course they always intended to make full use of it afterwards.

It’s becoming common, too, to find the systems used to let parents know about disruptive behaviour incidents, and balancing that, as a way of passing on good news about their children. Bilton School in Rugby, for example, uses its text messaging system both to alert parents to misbehaviour and to send ‘Fab Friday’ texts to parents whose children have had a particularly good week.

Another possibility on offer is that of allowing students to text in anonymously if they are being bullied, or have witnessed bullying. This was well used in one Midlands middle school by students who saw younger children being bullied on the school bus by older ones from another school. Their texts go anonymously to a secure website that is monitored regularly by a senior member of staff. Similarly, students may be able to communicate with their academic mentors using their phones to place messages onto a secure website. The suppliers offer a wide range of options, and these options are increasing all the time. To a considerable degree, the limits are not in the technology but in the development and management of how it’s packaged, offered and used.

Checking compatibility
Automatic text messaging depends on picking up data from the school’s e-registration system which, in turn, is part of the schools management information system (MIS). For this reason you should not attempt to buy a text messaging system without being confident that it’s fully compatible with your MIS. The fundamental principle of handling pupil data is ‘enter once, use many times’, which means that you cannot countenance having to enter pupils’ details into your text messaging system. It must exchange the information freely, to and fro, with the current data in the MIS. The best way to make sure of this is to start with your MIS supplier. Tell them what you want to do, and ask for advice. They may name more than one compatible system, in which case the choice is down to detailed features and, importantly, to cost.

It’s an important decision, worth making unhurriedly and carefully, taking into considerations the school’s needs. Ask each supplier for the details of user schools and follow them up – but remember that schools differ – where one school is heavily focused on unauthorised absence, another may be targeting behaviour, and yet another may be wanting to encourage home-school contact generally. Each of these school’s opinions will clearly be slanted towards their own priorities. And remember, too, that a user school will often have understandably grown loyal to the system in which it has invested, and may not even have looked closely at alternatives in the first place.

Finally, don’t be too dazzled by the technology and the wonders of instant contact. In a sense – as the naval example shows – that’s the easy bit. What you must do is try to envisage how the system, in use, will support your school’s values, and what it means for roles and responsibilities in school – in the office, and in the leadership team. Remember those two ships at sea, where the smoothness and rapidity of the transfer isn’t so much dependent on the cables and pulleys as on the leadership of the men and women with rank badges and the efficiency of the people on deck who know how to make the whole thing work.

How much?
Costs are difficult to pin down and compare because they vary with the size of the school and the exact nature of the package you are looking at – so you really have to make careful notes of each offer and consider how well the system will meet the needs of the school. However, Groupcall quotes ‘£1 per pupil per year’, which will be at least roughly in the same price bracket as other suppliers and provides a good starting point for your discussions.

There are quite a few around. Widely used ones include:

  • Schoolcomms
  • Truancy Call
  • Groupcall

Gerald Haigh is a former headteacher