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Communication at the British International School Shanghai

28 September 2017

Communication in schools is often taken for granted, because we have so many ways and means of doing it and because we do it all of the time.  However, effective communication to support our children is complex and requires careful planning. 

Communication sounds simple in theory, but can be notoriously difficult in practice in large organisations with numerous stakeholders.  We can all recall news stories of where communication has gone wrong for some of the world’s leading companies and are often surprised by these reports.  Perhaps we shouldn’t be, as organisations are often complicated, organic and of course built around people.  At BISS, we use a variety of ways to communicate with parents and I’m going to outline a few of these in this article that we believe are effective in supporting our pupils.

I’m a great believer in the ‘golden triangle’ of success in order to help our students to be successful.  At BISS, our vision is for all of us as learners to ‘Be Ambitious’ in how we think, what we do and what we achieve.  The triangle itself represents the relationship between students, parents and teachers.  For our children to be successful in their academic studies, in sports, performing arts and within the community, we need to ensure communication flows smoothly between parents, pupils and teachers and that students are placed at the heart of everything that we do together.

At the beginning of a new school term, many parents want to know about the challenges that their children will face in different phases of the school – from EYFS (ages 2-5), Key Stage 1 (ages 6-7), Key Stage 2 (ages 8-11) Key Stage 3 (ages 11-14), to Key Stage 4 (ages 15-16) and senior students in the IB Academy (ages 16-18).  We hold information events during the first term to explain the courses and subjects that they follow and the examination systems used in the curricula that lead to different pathways in the future.  Parents hear from subject teachers and students themselves, with plenty of advice on how to be successful at each of these levels. 

Our youngest students’ parents are keen to find out about how best to support their child at home in terms of organisation, who to contact if they have a question about a subject or a pastoral concern and how to help their son or daughter with homework.  The transition from primary school to secondary is often a focus at Key Stage 3 events.

With students at Key Stage 4, parents often wish to find out more about successful IGCSE study habits, so staff have used information events to explain the benefits of practising past papers, planning revision timetables and the different techniques that can be used in preparation for exams, such as making revision cards, mind maps and effective methods of note-taking. 

For the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, as well as encouraging the development of independent study habits by building on those learnt in the other Key Stages, parents often wish to find out about CAS (Creativity, Activity and Service), TOK (Theory of Knowledge) and EE (Extended Essays) – three key elements of the full Diploma programme.  They also receive lots of advice on how we can work together to support their child in making decisions about study at university level from our team of Higher Education advisors.

In all of these information events, there is a real focus on how to create and sustain good habits and be successful academically, whilst at the same time plenty of information and tips on how we can ensure that pupils develop resilience, enjoy their time at school and stay healthy.

The pastoral system is also a key element of supporting students and all pupils all have a form tutor (in the US system they are known as home tutors), with whom they meet each morning.  The form tutor meets with parents at the start of the year and is the first ‘port of call’ if parents have any questions or issues that they wish to raise – the form tutor then follows this up and directs parents to the most appropriate member of staff.  Tutors help to support the wellbeing of our pupils and so communication via email and face-to-face meetings is the norm at the school.

We also hold Student-Parent-Teacher-Conferences throughout the first and second terms, giving parents the opportunity to meet with all subject teachers and form tutors.  Students are expected to attend with their parents, as the opportunity for open, three-way communication between student, teacher and parent is very valuable.  The ‘golden triangle’ in action!

The school uses digital media to communicate school events with parents through weekly newsletters and blogs and our website has a ‘Parents’ Essentials’ section which is dedicated to informing them about upcoming events through a helpful school calendar, links to workshops from our Principal on aspects of school life, community guides for families new to Shanghai, letters that students have been given (and should have made it home), and even dining menus for the weeks ahead!  At BISS we offer many enrichment activities to pupils through Extra Curricular Activities in many sports, languages, the performing arts and through trips in collaboration with Juilliard, MIT and FOBISIA.  Our school website supports the dissemination of information about these exciting opportunities and an app provides up-to-date information on the venues, teams and times of sporting activities.  Daily blogs and a weekly digital newsletter shine a light on and celebrate the achievements and learning experiences of our students.

One of our key communication tools that parents have often said that they find invaluable is our ODIN service which provides a daily lesson summary and homework (LSAH) for each lesson that students have attended.  It’s designed to allow parents the opportunity to explore with their child what they’ve been learning that particular day and is a valuable way of supporting students.  Through explanation, pupils are more likely to make the critical connections and strengthen their understanding of topics and concepts.  Parents are also very knowledgeable, so it’s a great way of sharing ideas and helping with homework tasks, given the outline of what has been covered in lessons during the day.

There are always ways of improving as an organisation and so listening to parents and students is one of the keys to a progressive school.  As well as the events that I’ve already mentioned, we hold many consultation meetings with parents, often with a key focus and with members of the school leadership team.  These are vital in enabling healthy discussion on a range of issues and in agreeing ways for future improvement.  It helps us as a learning community to get more things right – for example, last week I met with room parents, who represent  each class from Years 7 to 13 and who bring to the fore the questions and concerns of all secondary school parents.  Everyone has the opportunity to join and they are always extremely useful in planning school development.  The Principal, Dr Neil Hopkin has already met with our Strategic Consultation Group, Sports Committee, Performing Arts Committee, Air Quality Committee, our Parent Events Team and New Parent Coordinators – each meeting aims to agree strategies on improving various aspects of school life for our community. 

Student voice is also vital in a healthy school and we regularly speak to pupils about their views and experiences through surveys, teaching and learning interviews, questionnaires and in discussions with our student council.  For parents, we also conduct an annual, independent survey on every aspect of school life to find out how we can think more, be more and achieve more.  It’s part of ‘Being Ambitious’ for the students in our care and a vital tool in the communication gateway between students, parents and teachers.

Andrew Lancaster, Head of Secondary