Communicating safety to parents and staff

Paul Hughes

Paul Hughes, managing director ParentMail, launched the company in 2001 and has spent the decade researching, gaining an understanding of and developing parental engagement with schools. With a specialist focus on the communication side of the business, Paul brings not only his previous experience of building and leading a technology business, but his personal experience and passion as parent to effectively understand and address many of the issues and opportunities associated with school and parent communications. Paul has led the growth and development of ParentMail since the outset to see it become the UK’s first integrated school to home communication and payment collection service.

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Communicating safety to parents and staff Photo: Pupils from Sheffield Primary schools team up with police to enforce road safety. [source:]

While our schools generally remain a safe haven for children, enabling parents to part with their little ones each morning, confident that they are out of danger, emergencies do happen making it crucial for schools and parents to be prepared, should the worst come to pass.

A core part of that strategy needs to include communicating with the parent body. By taking time to ensure they have effective communications systems in place, schools can manage unexpected situations more easily, should they arise. Emergency situations often present a time of panic both inside and out of the school itself, so having the right communication channels established to ensure effective communication without stress to either party could prove invaluable in saving time and preventing unnecessary alarm.

"Emergency situations often present a time of panic both inside and out of the school itself."

Schools reliant on traditional, paper-oriented methods of communications or telephone pyramids as their primary means of reaching parents are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to emergency communications. Paper notes are slow and ineffective methods of distributing information, and telephone pyramids are prone to human error.

Increasingly, electronic communication has found its feet as the primary method of communication between school and home. Email, text and app-based systems have provided schools with the ability to keep information up-to-date and communication more frequent. For parents it is ideal, ensuring that messages are received instantly anytime and anywhere – whether that’s updates on a school trip or to alert parents of any serious developments within the school.

The development of smartphone apps has taken this a step further. They provide a bridge that parents can use to keep up to-date with information and announcements in the palm of their hand. Parents can tap into them at their own convenience, with in-app notifications meaning that schools can wire information to an entire school without having to pay the cost of a text, with the message appearing straight onto smartphone screens.

Traditionally, in the case of an emergency, many schools operated a pyramid telephone system. This involved certain parents being assigned with a group of people to call and the message being passed on through word of mouth. Although this is a relatively inexpensive method of communications, all too often it is unreliable in comparison to other methods of communication, with parents today expecting more effective methods of communication coming directly from the school, rather than relying on second-hand information from other parents. One parent might miss the call, for example, and therefore can’t pass the message on. Another risk is that, like a game of Chinese whispers, messages might get altered, resulting in inaccurate information being relayed to people and causing unnecessary panic in an emergency situation. Also, with no trackable process in place, there is no record as to whether all parents have been reached.

Social media is another 21st century communication channel which we are beginning to see schools make use of as a means of keeping parents informed of school updates. With its primary benefit being its effectiveness in getting a message out instantly to a wide audience, this "Text and email communication channels work well because parents are quickly sent easy-to-read information."is also a downside. Social media is often a completely-open means of sharing information, with everything posted accessible to any member of the public, therefore making it a poor method of sharing sensitive information with parents. Additionally, unless all parents are registered on Facebook or Twitter and check their feeds regularly, it is an ineffective means of communicating with the parent body collectively, especially in serious situations. That said, social media can be a good way of schools showcasing more positive news or success stories about their pupils and events, especially at Secondary level.

The introduction of electronic methods of communication have enabled schools to improve safety with the ability to communicate with parents quickly, if required in an urgent situation. Text and email communication channels work well because parents are quickly sent information in a way that is easy for them to receive; and with the rise of smartphones it is convenient too. Web-based communication systems carry many benefits, one being that more than one parent or guardian can register, so both will receive school messages from their computer or smartphone. This increases the chances of acknowledgement and/or a reaction, as both contacts will be alerted.

Sending both emails and text messages is the ideal option, if schools are looking to cover all bases - this way, there is always a back-up. During severe, widespread bad weather for example, mobile networks can become overwhelmed as vast numbers of people try to communicate to one another. In a scenario such as this, schools can use a PC or tablet to send messages quickly and easily from a central system, in a matter of minutes.

Thanks to the efforts of staff and governors, schools do generally remain a safe place for children, but if an emergency situation does suddenly break out at school – what do you do? Whether it’s a fire, an accident, or a school closure, parents need to be informed immediately. And while schools must have an effective system in place, it’s also important for parents to buy into that system. It’s a two-way bridge, and schools need to work with parents to ensure they are providing the information in a way that suits them.

How do you keep parents updated during emergencies? Let us know below.

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