SMS gets the children to school

The debacle over teacher checks led to a tricky problem and an innovative solution, writes Karl Cushing.

The debacle over teacher checks led to a tricky problem and an innovative solution, writes Karl Cushing.

A high school in Stockport used an SMS-based communications system to inform parents when pupils needed to return to school, after the Government's failure to complete the screening of newly qualified teachers resulted in a chaotic start to the new term.

Initially, Hazel Grove High School had to inform the parents of all year-eight pupils that classes were suspended because teacher vetting had not been completed. When the then education secretary Estelle Morris abandoned her policy on teacher checks at the last minute, the school was left with the task of letting parents know that their children needed to be in classes the following day.

"When the Government abandoned its criminal vetting policy on newly qualified teachers, we were faced with the daunting task of letting parents know that their children could return to school in less than 24 hours," explains Paul Rowland, assistant headteacher at the school.

Rowland says it was too late to send out letters in the post, while telephoning 280 parents would have been very time-consuming. Using SMS, the school was able to get the message out to parents of the 280 pupils affected quickly and cost-effectively, without placing an excessive administrative burden on its staff.

More than 200 of the 280 pupils affected attended school the next day after receiving the message, with 130 saying they were in school because of the text message they had received. Rowland believes that about 70 or 80 pupils would have turned up if the school had not used the SMS system.

Another benefit was that the school did not have to install any new computer or telephone equipment. The system, from software firm Call Parents, can be accessed and activated by teachers and support staff via a secure Web browser.

Rowland believes there are many situations where it will prove cost-effective for the school to send out text messages instead of getting teachers and support staff to write letters or telephone parents. Over the next few months the school plans to extend its use of SMS messages to inform parents of report dates, parents evenings, after-school activities and even detentions.

The Call Parents system uses a combination of direct calling and SMS to contact parents with messages typed in via the Internet. Parents without mobile phones receive a telephone call, with the typed message converted into speech. The system calls repeatedly until contact is made and the results are recorded in a database.

Rowland says feedback from staff and parents has been very positive. "Using the Call Parents system, we will be able to reduce teachers' admin workloads, which means they can remain focused on the education and welfare of the children," he says.

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