The School Doctor: Letters from School

In the latest column for Schools Improvement, The School Doctor gives his thoughts on the communication between schools and parents.

Parents at a primary school in Kent may have been shocked recently when they received a letter from their children’s headteacher accusing them – the parents, not the children – of driving like ‘maniacs’. ‘What’s the matter with some of you?’ the letter lashed out, as if the head were writing something bilious ‘below the line’ of an online article, or channeling their inner daytime talkshow guest. Another head of another primary school, again in Kent (is the south east experiencing a surge in epistolary anger?), took parents to task for the contents of their children’s packed lunches: ‘whilst extreme and funny to read on paper, I must make clear THESE ARE NOT ACCEPTABLE examples of a balanced packed lunch’. The legitimate concerns of the letter were undermined rather by the shouty caps.

Such letters have been the subject of investigation by Joanna Apps, senior lecturer at the Research Centre for Children, Families and Communities at Canterbury Christ Church University – ah, that’s why Kentish heads seem to be disproportionately angry. Apps has identified an increase in the use of ‘authoritarian’ and ‘emotional’ language by heads when writing to parents, which consequently betrays the schools’ ‘lack of control and composure’ and puts at risk the healthy relationship between school and parents.

It is difficult to disagree with Apps’s conclusions. No one likes being hectored, nor written to in caps, and understandable grievances about road safety or balanced diets quickly become secondary to the aggrieved parents who receive stinky letters in their email or at the bottom of their child’s schoolbag. The debate quickly becomes about how they were written to, rather than about how shoddy and dangerous their driving might be. Equally, it is difficult not to have sympathy with the irritation and lack of composure that heads’ letters sometimes betray – they are, after all, trying to keep their pupils safe and healthy, and their attempts are sometimes undermined by the extremely small minority of parents who provoke responses inversely proportional to their number. That said, composure is surely the key. There is a difference between standing one’s ground, especially important against pushy parents, and conceding that ground by engaging in the kind of aggressive (passive or active) behaviour that a minority of parents themselves exhibit. Once that ground is lost, and the relationship is compromised, it is extremely difficult to regain or repair.

It was coincidental, but by no means irrelevant, that the educational press covered Apps’s epistolary research at around the same time that it carried concerns (again) about digital literacy and the appropriate ways to use technology in schools and at home. The spotlight was again on pupils whose Snapshat-textspeak existences are leading to attention-span deficits and generations unfit for the world of work. But that light should also be shone benignly on teachers and school leaders, who in the heat of their difficult day-to-day existences sometimes forget that their e-communication can easily be misread or misinterpreted with just one or two missing words, or an over-excited use of the caps lock key.

How many of us, I wonder, receive emails from colleagues or parents each week, the intentions of which are entirely innocent, but which we misinterpret as aggressive because of their brevity or lack of ‘thank you’s or whatever? And how many of us send those perfectly innocent emails in haste, but upset someone else in our school community because we just write ‘Can I leave this with you?’ or ‘Has this been done yet?’. We all need to remember that our e-communication needs to be consistent with our face-to-face communication. If you wouldn’t say it to a colleague or parent in the corridor or playground, then you have no place saying it – ESPECIALLY IN CAPS – in an email or newsletter. This is part of a much, much wider cultural problem, wherein millions of people worldwide find it acceptable to hurl their bitterness and aggression against total strangers just because the internet allows them to do so from behind their keyboard.

The issue is writ large with heads, as their newsletters are sent to hundreds of people in one go, and the forward button is a potent weapon against a head who has riled someone in their community – innocently or otherwise. Newsletters have their place, of course, and they can be an effective tool for heads to celebrate the achievements of their communities, to ponder briefly their own educational philosophy and what their school is trying to achieve. They are also useful for chronicling school events (though the ‘this is what happened last week; this is what’s happening next week’ model is often made somewhat redundant by the existence of school calendars). They are also convenient places for heads to gently and politely ask for parents to be considerate when dropping off their children at school or providing them with a Big Mac for lunch. Just leave off caps lock.

The School Doctor is a practising teacher at a UK school, using a pseudonym to allow more freedom in his/her regular columns for Schools Improvement.


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