School websites are not giving value for parents, says new report

Most schools in England are merely scratching the surface with their websites. A survey of schools in every local authority has found that most are not fit for purpose when it comes to providing parents with the information they need.

But there is good news. The report, "Structure and function of school websites: The key to driving parental engagement in the digital age" (summary here), was created to help schools, and each of its conclusions is supported by constructive suggestions to help address their challenges.

And there are plenty of challenges. The report examined 16 website issues in all, and while there is no surprise in individual findings, they combine to create a "shocking" picture of missed opportunities and investments, according to its instigator, Lynne Taylor.

While all 16 sections are important, here are some of the standout ones that ought to ring alarm bells:

  • Two thirds of school websites are not "responsive", ie designed to be compatible with mobile devices like mobile phones and tablets, parents' preferred means of communication;
  • Readability – only 22 per cent of primary and 9 per cent of secondary school websites were considered easy to read;
  • Website loading speed – only 5 per cent of primary and fewer than 2 per cent of secondary websites were recorded as good;
  • Named contact – 55 per cent of primary and 50 percent of secondary sites had no appropriate named contact;
  • Social media  – 7 per cent of primary and 21 per cent of secondary schools use Facebook, and 18 per cent of primary and 50 per cent of secondary schools use Twitter (many that do use social media, use it very effectively);
  • Parent opinions on Ofsted’s Parent View - Of 601 schools with 397,089 students, just 10,599 parents (2.67 per cent) gave opinions (in 128 schools there were no responses);
  • Use of online portals (ex payments) – 105 different products were located in 355 schools. (in 246 school no such products were found);
  • School meals menu – 63 per cent of primary and 72 per cent of secondary websites did not display school a school meals menu;
  • Online payments – 20 different online payment providers were located in 238 schools (in 60 per cent of schools no online payments were found);
  • School app – only 18 of the 601 schools advertised an app being available. 

Report identifies weaknesses and advises on how to counter them

Lynne TaylorLynne TaylorThe independent report was commissioned by Lynne Taylor (pictured left), a former Coventry teacher who has enjoyed a highly successful career in school management and data software and online services. She was the founder of ParentPay, the UK’s first and largest online payment service, and now runs her own company, Cogent Computer Solutions.

Since selling off her interest in ParentPay, Lynne Taylor has devoted herself to putting her experience and expertise to the service of schools and learning. Her first venture was ParentApp, a website linking parents to thousands of free resources for helping them support their children's learning.

An expert in parental engagement, she has been dismayed by the widespread failure of schools to use their websites and social media to communicate effectively with parents and bring them into school communities. The purpose of this report was to identify the weaknesses and help counter them, and she has been encouraged by the responses of schools she has shared it with so far.

"Review of best practice in parental engagement from the DfE showed that parental involvement in a child’s education inspires the child to achieve better and reach their full potential," says Lynne Taylor. "Today’s parents are a generation that has grown up in the digital age and will demand that communications, support, and information is offered through the media they know best. The school website is a crucial tool to engage parents but research has shown that it has been overlooked as a key gateway to engage parents in their child’s learning.

"Our researchers viewed and tested the websites of two primary and two secondary schools randomly selected in every local authority in England for simple functionality with the digital parent in mind. The overall conclusion is shocking and shows that very few school websites address the needs of the modern parent, and in particular those parents deemed ‘hard to reach’.

"Most parents use social media, many using tablets and smartphones and yet only 7 per cent of primary and 21 per cent of secondary schools use Facebook. And it was found that two thirds of schools do not have websites which adjust to small screens

"Schools understand the need to review text to ensure it can be read by all abilities, yet tests on readability of home pages showed that only 24 per cent of primary and 9 per cent of secondary websites are easy to read.

"Schools invest heavily in online portals to allow parents to find out more about their children or engage in other activities, and 105 different products were located in 59 per cent of schools, but that still leaves 41 per cent of schools where no such products were found."

Schools failing to grasp the lessons of the digital revolution

The over-riding impression generated by the report is one of most schools failing to grasp the lessons of a digital revolution that offers them unprecedented and powerful tools for reaching and engaging the parents of their learners. Despite the pact that they have invested in websites, investments that carry annual charges, those sites are not fit for purpose as far as parents are concerned. And despite the almost universal use of social media by parents, few schools are exploiting these free tools effectively (for one interesting exception see the Facebook page of the Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy).

The aim of the research was to investigate how school websites are structured and used, so that advice could be provided for further improvement. The researchers had a checklist based on the needs of their key users: parents of students already at the school; parents of students not yet attending; students; teachers. The checklist ranges from simple contact information, through Department for Education information requirements, to links to Ofted's own Parent View website which, the research reveals, is also failing to engage.

School information is anonymous and the report is aware of school sensitivities. It states: "The research is not a judgement on any school in the sample; quite the contrary. Schools are places of learning not corporate organisations with budgets to exploit the latest web technologies. Achievements relating to school websites are excellent, our aim is to work together to accomplish even more."

The report's greatest value lies in the advice it provides for schools

While the report serves a valuable purpose of highlighting important issues concerning school websites, its greatest value is the really helpful material that can help schools solve their problems. Take website 'responsiveness' for example (the ability to cater for users on mobile devices).  Once the alert is made, readers are informed how Google's new mobility rankings make it important for schools to get on board, and then they get the recommendations:

  • A simple explanation and guidance is required to explain to schools what responsive means and how it improves a user’s experience;
  • All school websites should be responsive even if they have an app;
  • WordPress users should search through the many options available and select a responsive theme;
  • Any school that uses a professional website designer should contact their supplier to ask for their site to be made responsive.

And then comes the conclusion:

  • Having a responsive website is an essential feature to give parents the best opportunity to use their child’s school website as a conduit to support learning.

It's all useful advice, depending of course on the circumstances and needs of individual schools, and best of all it comes free with the report summary.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the report, however, is the fact that most people who have visited school websites to look for information will have been aware of many of these individual challenges. But they have not been able to put them together in a way that can be shared collectively to help make improvements.

Gerald HaighGerald Haigh: first contact crucialGerald Haigh is a former school leader who now writes extensively about schools and the role of technology for school improvement. He welcomed the report's findings and commented: "My research for numerous articles and case studies on parental engagement over several years has shown clearly that the schools working to involve parents in their children's classroom life and learning see significant benefits for achievement across the board -- in attendance and behaviour as well as attainment. And as the parent-school dialogue improves, so life at home can be less fraught, to everyone's benefit. I collected some revealing comments from children about this.

"Emma Stevens, for example, a Year 10 student at Blatchington Mill School in Hove which gives parents access to its SharePoint-based learning platform, told me, 'I talk to my mum a lot about the work. It makes me try hard because I know that she knows what I'm doing.' And 300 miles north, in Hawes Side Primary, Blackpool,  eight-year-old Bradley explained that, although his mum and dad help him with his reading and maths, he’s able to help them with Windows Movie Maker: 'My mum doesn’t know a lot about computers so I’ll be there to show her.'

"Given all of that, it's crucial that the first point of contact should be inviting, comfortable, easy to deal with and stress free -- and that's whether we're talking about the receptionist behind the front desk or the school website. To treat either of them as an afterthought is to miss valuable opportunities and risk unnecessary misunderstandings.

'Count me in for the digital parental engagement revolution?'

Lynne Taylor built her successful post-school career on her understanding of the potential of new technologies for learning and school management. Now she is happy to share what she has learned with schools.

She concludes: “Our research concludes that every school should review its website with today’s digital parent in mind. They should check its readability and how it looks on smartphones. Using parents’ own ‘first choice’ communication media – nowadays mobile devices – will help to engage them to be part of learning. School support services should offer training and share best practice materials and advice to staff who feel ‘uncomfortable’ using these methods.

“There needs to be a digital parental engagement revolution – count me in!”

More information

"Structure and function of school websites: The key to driving parental engagement in the digital age" (summary)
Video for report 
Report PowerPoint presentation  
Apply for full report data here