Schools use 'authoritarian' language in newsletters as they try to assert dominance over pushy parents

Harry Yorke
It is has become commonplace for teachers to adopt a particularly stern tone when addressing parents - PA

They were once considered an inoffensive publication, used mainly to announce upcoming cake sales, inset days and quiz nights.

But now school newsletters have become the latest front of a battleground between teachers and pushy parents, as schools try to reassert their dominance by using increasingly “authoritarian” language.

It is has become commonplace for teachers to adopt a particularly stern tone when addressing parents, according to a study of primary school newsletters across the UK.

Joanna Apps, a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, who conducted the research found that schools are using news bulletins to chastise parents about issues such as reckless driving and accompanying their child too far into school.

She said that such an approach is counter-intuitive, said that adopting such an "authoritarian" and "emotional" approach risks undermining the relationship between the school and parents.

School newsletters have become the latest front of a battleground between teachers and pushy parents

Commenting on the research, Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University, said: “Schools can get carried away with telling parents how they ought to behave which seems to be going beyond just keeping parents informed.

“The education of children is a joint project between schools and parents and it doesn’t help the relationship if one or other party sees themselves in the driving seat.

“It has to be a partnership - it doesn’t help if the parents get pushy or the schools get authoritarian. It looks as though the newsletters are becoming a way of the school telling parents we are in charge and please do what we tell you.”

Ms Apps, who works at the Research Centre for Children, Families and Communities, said that school parking is the most common example of where head teachers go wrong.

She added that while some parents’ behaviour can be of “serious concern”, emotionally charged news items show “just how frustrated the school is” and should be avoided.

Her warning comes amid a string of parental disputes at a number of London schools, with headteachers and two borough councils trialling compulsory £130 fines to deter parents who drive to the school gates to drop their children off.

Elsewhere, teachers have complained about pushy parents attempting to muscle their way into the running of schools, with teaching unions warning that academic staff are now “triple marking” children’s work to keep parents happy.

Teaching unions warning that academic staff are now “triple marking” children’s work to keep parents happy Credit: RayArt Graphics / Alamy Stock Photo

Rather than using school letters as a way to reassert the head’s authority, Ms Apps cautions against adopting a heavy-handed approach. She identifies one letter - which accuses  parents of showing “a blatant disregard” for other families and children, because of the “haste” and “manner of their driving” - as an example of where schools are going wrong.

Rather than resolving parental difficulties, Ms Apps argues that aggressive messages only serve to erode the authority of the school, and show a “lack of control and composure”. She added that the use of striking symbols and visuals alongside text can also prove problematic, leading parents to become confused if they are being sent two different sets of messages.

“[This] sometimes led to a mismatch between the tone of the messages conveyed,” she said.  “Sometimes these items sit next to welcoming and friendly invitations to parents to come into school for shows and events. This could undermine how these invitations are viewed by parents.”

In one scenario, a newsletter included a hazard sign next to a request for parents to accompany their children to the classroom, which Ms Apps said sent an “underlying message” to parents that they are a “hazard” and therefore “unwelcome”.

Ms Apps’ research, which she presented at the European Research Network About Parents in Education, also found that some schools were guilty of being too negative. She recommended that headteachers prioritise thanking parents for their support and praising individual children to build a sense of school community.

Aggressive school newsletters

Parents who sent their children to school with “unacceptable” packed lunches were chastised by Byron primary school in Gillingham. The school’s newsletter said: "In the past few weeks there have been a number of worrying packed lunches brought into school. Whilst extreme and funny to read on paper, I must make this clear THESE ARE NOT ACCEPTABLE examples of a balanced packed lunch.”

The newsletter gave examples of a cold McDonald's Happy Meal which had been purchased the previous evening Credit:  Rui Vieira

The headteacher at Felmore Primary School in Basildon, Essex, used the newsletter to warn parents that they should refrain from using bad language and loitering around for too long at the school gates.

The board of governors at Goodleigh Church of England primary school in north Devon, told parents that “bullying and harassment of staff” would not be tolerated and accusing some parents of “seeking to undermine the reputation of the school”.

William Read Primary School, in Canvey Island, used their newsletter to tell parents that coughs and colds are “no reason” for children to miss school.

The headteacher at Godinton Primary School in Ashford, Kent used the school newsletter to attack  "maniac" parents who drive too fast as they drop their children off at school, adding: "What's the matter with some of you?”

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