School business leaders have risen to many challenges in the COVID epidemic – among them managing cleaning and social distancing to prevent the virus spreading, providing the tools to allow remote learning, and providing food for those on free school meals
Underlying all these challenges is the need for clear and effective communication – ensuring that parents, students and other key stakeholders know what is happening at the school. The weekly newsletter, regular social media posts and infrequent letters have turned into constant, two-way communication and leaders, especially in smaller schools, have had to spend many hours just talking to people.
So, here are 10 ideas to help going forward…
- Share the burden. Surveys conducted during the pandemic (such as this one from Teacher Tapp – https://teachertapp.co.uk/lets-talk-about-feelings-but-still-with-data/) show that the stress of COVID has been felt more by senior leaders than classroom teachers. Consider who you can add to your communication team – can heads of year be given more responsibility for their year groups, or a member of the finance team deal with contractors full time?
- Co-ordinate messages. In order to have more people involved it’s vital that messages are clear and consistent. Two ways to ensure this are to have regular virtual staff meetings to share news, and to use the school website as the central place for communication, rather than sending a series of letters that may overwhelm busy people.
- Don’t overcommunicate. Unless there is a clear emergency, try to update the section of your website that has COVID advice once per week. When you do this, make it obvious what the changes are from the previous version.
- Check everything. It’s obvious that a school needs to check messages for grammar and spelling, but it’s also well worth checking with colleagues (especially those who are parents) that your messages make sense – see the case study, below, for two examples where innocuous posts caused problems.
- Consider the communication needs of your community. Are there parents who don’t speak English, or might find it hard to read complex documents such as full government guidelines? You could create short information videos to help them – or provide information about how to translate your school’s website (Google Chrome is now very good at doing this!)
- Use many different ways to share the same message. If you have one central source of information on your website you can send links to it via text, email, social media, and apps such as ClassDojo or ParentMail, without having to retype or format anything. Parents can respond in the way they feel most comfortable with. (It’s striking how many don’t like email when you ask them in focus groups and surveys.)
- Listen, but don’t feel the need to respond immediately. Trying to quickly respond to lots of messages can introduce emotions such as frustration – or even anger – and cause long-term issues. Let your stakeholders know when staff will be around and how quickly they will respond.
- Be very careful with social media. When you are dealing with difficult issues, managing responses on platforms such as Facebook can be challenging as they are open to a large community. Consider managing how people can post – or make sure you have enough time to deal with all comments.
- Watch out for ‘dark social’. Messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, can also be challenging as parents share and comment on information. It’s well worth reminding your community, including older students, not to share anything negative they are seeing, and to check with the school if they are concerned by what they are seeing.
- Keep positive! If at all possible, make sure to keep sharing good news – both inside and outside the school. It’s so important in these difficult times.
James Tucker is assistant head for strategic communications at The McAuley Catholic High School, Doncaster. His school, a large 11-18 comprehensive on the outskirts of Doncaster, has suffered the impact of COVID over the past seven months – from the initial lockdown closures to recent positive tests in several year groups.
As the COVID pandemic developed, James realised the school had an important role as a trusted centre in the community – translating complex government information and delivering what was, at times, difficult news. It was, therefore, essential to plan ahead when making announcements and he took time to anticipate potential developments, such as having to send student groups home, and drafted statements in advance, as well as considering carefully when would be best to issue messages.
This advance preparation meant that he had time to share statements with other members of staff – other school leaders, colleagues working in the school reception who have regular telephone contact with parents, and fellow teachers with secondary-school age children. This meant that he could compare what the school was saying with other schools, anticipate the reaction from parents, and add in extra explanation where needed.
The system wasn’t foolproof though; for example, he was surprised to receive a number of messages asking why his school had not arranged ‘deep cleans’ when cases of COVID were identified. This was because other schools had led with that message, whereas The McAuley School had it as part of a regular routine!
Another frustrating time came when the school announced that it was waiting for information from a local bus company before publishing return-to-school information. This triggered a number of parents to immediately ask about specific bus routes – ignoring the actual message!
Simon Hepburn is Founder of Marketing Advice for Schools (www.marketingadviceforschools.com) and regularly advises schools on all aspects of communication, marketing and student recruitment.