Social media and schools are not always a match made in heaven. Instead of being a cause for excitement, the words Facebook and Twitter can be a headache for many headteachers who worry about safeguarding, cyberbulling and abusive messaging.
But the intersection between schools and the online world is not merely a question of educating pupils about online safety. In parallel, though with far less of a fanfare, schools are starting to use social media in their own right, employing the same tools students use to post selfies to talk to parents, display and explain classroom activities and, albeit tentatively, encourage feedback and debate.
While there appears to be no comprehensive research so far examining schools’ ventures into the digital world, experts in the field report that many are becoming bolder in using social media to reveal daily life inside schools, and increasingly with the explicit aim of connecting with the hardest-to-reach parents.
Sion Humphreys, policy adviser for the National Association of Headteachers, is one of many to stress that a lot of schools still fear Facebook, and worry that it risks opening them up to parental criticism of the school or those within it. The site can “cause schools lots of grief,” says Humphreys, and then “it’s a case of once bitten, twice shy”.
But while schools are right to take a responsible attitude over safeguarding, the advantages of social networks in connecting with parents are significant, according to Simon Shaw, who led the parental engagement programme at the now defunct technology in education agency, BECTA.
School websites explaining the modern maths curriculum, or direct tweets to parents showing classroom work activities, can provide vital information for parents, allowing them to start a conversation with their child about their learning that goes beyond the traditional end-of-the-day grunt, Shaw says. A child in turn can direct parents to their artwork on a Facebook photogallery, for example, with the public nature of the work providing extra motivation.
Shaw adds: “There is a lot of international evidence saying the greatest impact on a child’s learning is the extent of parental engagement in their children’s education. Technology has transformed that three-way relationship between parents, schools and learners.”
Dughall McCormick, an e-learning consultant, argues that schools remain too “e-cautious”, fearing abusive messages and lack of control. Anecdotally, he says, parents “cause fewer problems with social media when the school also has a presence on it – it’s like having a teacher posted on the virtual school gate”. The key for schools, McCormick says, is to make sure protocols are in place and those in charge of the school accounts fully understand their workings and are vigilant about monitoring – and not only during school hours.
Websites such as Facebook allow the option of moderation before comments go live, and – a few years and legal cases down the line from the launch of Twitter – the police and courts can now take action against online abuse.
Parents too may feel a kind of “generalised, non-specific concern” about their children’s images being posted online, says McCormick, but most put fears aside once the issues are discussed. Indeed, schools often educate parents about their own home online safety, while demonstratingsafe ways to use online media to students, he adds.
At Westfields Junior school in Yately, Hampshire, the hook that drew parents to social media was a school trip to France. Amid parental worries that their youngsters would not eat properly on the residential visit, headteacher Karine George made sure moment-by-moment updates – including photos of each meal – were posted on the school’s Twitter feed, prompting parents not only to sign up and follow the school but also call for more photos if they felt their own child was not visible enough.
“It just spiralled from there,” says George, whose school won a Naace award as a leader in technology this year. Parents, including the third of families where both parents are not living together, can keep track of their children’s learning and use the information to talk to their children. “We know parents can’t keep taking days off work to come into school. This is not a substitute intended to replace coming in but it gives parents something meaningful to talk about. It’s about being with the children on their learning journey.”
Parents retain some fear of Facebook, George says, while those who are unhappy about something will still post comments – though on their own webpages, not the school’s. “As with any technology, it’s a question of how you use it.”
Concern at parental response has prompted Francis Clarke, communications manager at Ark Kings Academy, Birmingham, to trial a non-live school Facebook webpage for a few months to help build confidence about the concept within the school. Ark Kings, which serves a challenging area of Birmingham, already uses Twitter to provide parents with general information, together with stories and special moments – including recent pictures of newly-hatched chicks – intended to help reverse any negative attitudes towards the school.
Clarke hopes to move from “broadcasting to public service”, a shift he acknowledges could mean the school has to use its social media sites to respond to criticism. “My ultimate goal is that meaningful conversations about school policy can go on there. A professional response to critical comments can be powerful.”
That shift from broadcasting announcements to a real two-way conversation is the next stage in schools’ use of social media, according to John Bidder of Getloggedin, a company advising schools on technology and parental engagement. Parents are now almost universally using social media, and to reach them schools must “fish where the fish are”, Bidder says. Even a website updated occasionally is now too slow; social media with its possibility of constant small updates and opportunities for response represents the “pulse of a school”, Bidder says.
Meaningful consultation with parents is the next phase, says Bidder – though even this social media enthusiast suggests the process will start on Facebook with selected groups initially.
After all, he adds: “There is no magic formula to this. All there are is people who are willing to take managed risks and work along with that. It’s very much a work in progress, but it always is in schools because you’re always learning.”