I can see the puzzled expressions already – moaning parents on WhatsApp, good for my school? How can this be?
Hear me out.
The halcyon days of parents only talking to each other at sparsely attended PTA fundraisers or the gossipy kitchen supper circuit are no longer with us, perhaps for quite some time to come. Instead, they search out their tribe online, in Facebook groups or parents’ WhatsApp groups.
In the context of schools, WhatsApp has become synonymous with disgruntled parents, low level but ever-present moaning and misinformation. If Year 8 parents have been whipped into a frenzy about the apparently ridiculous short notice given that they absolutely MUST wear school-issue hockey socks for training on the astro (despite them being on the uniform list for around 15 years), you can bet there’s a WhatsApp group at source.
Many independent schools experienced the worst of WhatsApp at the start of this year’s lockdown, when the thorny issue of school fees fired up message feeds across the country. It wasn’t pretty.
But How Can Schools Manage These Pesky Whatsapp Grumbles?
Some schools choose to leave parents to it, accepting WhatsApp as another unfortunate cross to bear. But sticking your head in the sand when parental dissatisfaction is a real possibility is a dangerous strategy.
No… the Whatsapp furore needs to be addressed head on, not only to stem the damage, but in fact to listen to and understand the grumbles, the needs, the wants and even the so-called ridiculous.
Indeed schools can gain great insight from parents’ WhatsApp groups about a wealth of things: parent engagement, satisfaction levels, overall sentiment and feeling towards the school. Knowing what a section of parents are unhappy about is gold dust. Knowing this means you can do something about it. And that’s why parents moaning on Whatsapp is in fact, a good thing for your school.
Below are a couple of tips to help you tackle this territory.
Tip 1: Obtain Parent Support
At the beginning of each year, ask for a volunteer parent from each year group to be the conduit between school and parents. This might be an existing parent representative or another who wants to be involved but doesn’t have the time to attend parent rep meetings or make Nativity costumes.
These parents can gently address misinformation or flag up any issues to the school before low level moans become a rant. (They may be offered thank yous for their support…perhaps a free ticket to the summer play or simply a ‘thank you for your support’ card and coffee with the Head.)
Tip 2: Talk to Parents
Where schools are aware of existing WhatsApp groups in full flow, personal communication is key. Talk to supportive parents and try to get to the bottom of what the inflammatory issue is, then address it through appropriate channels. There is nothing like a personal phone call from the Head to tackle the perceived problem head on and calm a feverish message feed.
One school I know had 53 parents in a Whatsapp group threatening mutiny and immediate departure because the school had failed to communicate clearly why the term’s fee discount was ‘only’ 20%. Once the school was aware, the Head and SLT took the time to personally call every parent who they knew felt unhappy, as well as swiftly sending out whole-school communications to clarify their position. They emphasised that the situation was under review and that the school would pass on every possible saving once the financial picture was clearer and strive to support families whose financial future was uncertain. The school took the opportunity to encourage parents to share any and all concerns through direct communication, to avoid any future misunderstandings.
These transparent and swift actions led to better parent-school relations and averted a potential exodus. In fact, parents were appreciative of the intervention and the school discovered that parent ‘chat’ talked favourably about their school’s actions in comparison to others.
Of course, we mustn’t forget that much of the WhatsApp to and fro is genuinely useful to parents – messages from fellow parents about “remember it’s cross country today, a towel might come in handy” or “so sorry, I’m running late, could you possibly take Jamie home and I’ll collect asap”. But every now and then, comments about homework, communications or quality of teaching build momentum and quickly become toxic.
My advice is, address these moans head on and in fact see them as one of the most valuable bits of insight a school could possibly have.
(This Stickman article was first published in Independent School Management Plus magazine, October 2020)
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Stickman Chief Cheerleader and School Marketing & Research Consultant