A school newsletter is part of the communication lifeblood of every school. They have long been used by schools as a way to keep parents in the picture. A good newsletter can lead to happy parents.
Used alongside more focused, urgent formats such as single-issue emails, text messages or website updates, they have the potential to remain at the heart of parent community engagement.
The question is: who writes them and what tools do they have for the job?
We have reviewed hundreds of newsletters across every school phase. We identify nine clear trends among newsletters for external audiences such as parents. You will no doubt recognise some of them.
Popular school newsletter formats
Our research indicates the most common forms of newsletter are:
- PDFs sent by email, often hosted on a school website
- School website content (blogs, videos etc.) bundled together and called a newsletter
- Emails sent via a dedicated email application
- Native online document formats such as Google Docs
PDF is the dominant school newsletter format. Beneath the humble PDF lies a further range of crafting methods. Most creators use word processing applications such as Microsoft Word. Some appear to prefer PowerPoint or a desktop publishing application, making them more visual.
Most common school newsletter content
Schools send a whole variety of information to parents via their email newsletters. Some of it is objectively important (covering issues such as key dates, safeguarding, academic programmes etc.), some is urgent (deadlines, ticketed events, limited opportunities etc.) and some falls into a less clear category that we might call “somewhat interesting to some people some of the time”.
Schools by and large struggle to clearly differentiate between these different types of information. Indeed, we reviewed over 100 email newsletters on school websites (mostly PDF) and found they contained a range of material, including:
- SEND, safeguarding, mental health, free school meals, helplines and other essential information
- Term dates, sporting fixtures, clubs, societies and other enrichment activities
- Home working support, online resources and other academic updates for parents – especially important during the school shutdown
- Positive feedback about individual children
- Staff updates and news
Simple school newsletter improvements
Very few school newsletters used a consistent structure and clear signposting to draw a parent’s attention to key elements. Only one we saw had a contents page, though most were many pages long. Indeed, given the volume of content contained within the vast number of PDFs we discovered online, most of which is useful and interesting, we fear too much of it may be buried deeply, attached to emails but rarely opened.
Every school will have its preference. There is no sensible way to argue the one size should fit all. But there are some universal improvements available to schools, if they see parent engagement as a priority:
- Categorise the types of information sent via newsletter and attempt to bundle these up. Perhaps consider a different format for the most important and urgent, to frame these distinctly.
- Use clear signposting and structural cues to draw parents’ attention to important elements and indicate those areas that require additional thought from them.
- Survey parents or use data from email tools to get a better understanding of what resonates with them and lead with that.
- Consider more than one version of newslettes, or empowering year groups or departments to send them out, creating more variety – but be sure to make it clear to parents what choice they have.
We will cover many of these areas in our next free workshop for schools.
Who is doing all the work?
One of the most important determinants of the best approach to a school newsletter is the skill and experience of the person or people responsible for laying it out.
Search data in the UK reveals the most common school newsletter related search is for templates. Many people find design a daunting and time-consuming task so finding an attractive template can make life easier and overcome an important barrier. What is perhaps less obvious to many people in that position is that the design is one of three time-consuming and daunting elements in the job of newsletter creation. Finding a template only solves one issue.
We would argue that more important than the look is the content, and importantly, how well it matches the needs and expectations of parents. This is where technology can, under the right circumstances, come in.
A good newsletter platform can help with templates and design, vastly improving the professionalism of a school’s newsletter output. This may seem non-essential but research reveals that good design has a very important impact on trustworthiness and confidence. Twenty years ago, one of the most prominent designers in the world, Jakob Neilsen, wrote four rules for trustworthy digital design. These have become gospel, and for good reason. It turns out, they haven’t changed in that time – Neilsen also observed that usability guidelines are highly durable. Trust and confidence are two things every school wants to instil in its parents. Thirty newsletters a year is thirty opportunities to boost both.
Newsletters: design, content and efficiency
A good newsletter application is about more than good design, though. It will also speed up the process of laying out your work, making it more efficient. This gives you back more time to focus on the content itself, leading to a better experience for your readers, the parents.
Using a new technology may take a little training, although most modern platforms can be self-taught in a matter of hours. The upside is that you can immediately gain the power of consistency, thanks to the use of repeatable templates. You find that you can drop in words, images and more, and they will be formed into the same structure, week in, week out.
Even more powerfully than this, digital platforms provides data and automation. This might be something simple, such as showing how many more parents open the school newsletter when it starts with a picture. Or it may be more sophisticated, such as the ability to send a newsletter to each parent at the best time of the day for them, or even sending slightly different variations to different groups, based on how they’ve engaged in the past. The data and automation isn’t just a nerd’s dream – it’s a value made freely available to any school so long as somebody is willing to learn a new skill.
A modern email platform should come with privacy built in. GDPR has been with us for long enough now and most organisations, including schools, have come to terms with its requirements. Software designed to send out newsletters to parents will be compliant, and may even come with advice about how to make sure it is used properly and doesn’t put you at risk. This said, the data controller or privacy lead at the school will need to be confident in any new technology.
Weighing up the options
At this point, it’s probably worth summarising the pros and cons of turning to an application more tailored to the task than saving Word documents as PDFs and sending as email attachments on a weekly basis:
- Speed up the repeatable tasks such as laying out, to allow more time for good quality content creation
- Create consistency and a more professional appearance, boosting trustworthiness and confidence
- Enable a school to begin learning more about the parent audience, and about what drives engagement
- Automate the process of sending content that is more tailored to each recipient
- The additional time it takes to learn new software
- Changing a tried-and-tested process, knowing that technology adoption often comes with teething problems
- Concerns around data and privacy when using a new application
- Uncertainty among other internal stakeholders in the school
While each decision will need to be made based on a school’s individual circumstances, many schools in the UK have already taken the plunge and started using email software to send out newsletters. So perhaps the first piece of advice to any individual school would be to ask colleagues in your MAT, federation or network, to find out how they are finding the transition.
Choose your weapon
So now let’s turn to the question we set at the beginning: what are the best tools for schools to use for parent communication? Here we review seven applications that are all free under most circumstances (some very large schools, and certainly MATs, would find they may need to upgrade to a paid version, which is often dependent on the size of the parent database – in most cases these start at less than £10 per month).
Original free email tool. Comes with powerful Knowledge Base, to help new and inexperienced users quickly learn.
- Rating: 4.5 (ETT), 1.6 TrustPilot
- Subscribers: 2,500
- Emails per month: 10,000
Realtime collaboration on emails means multiple people can work on them at the same time – perhaps useful in a school.
- Rating: 3.5 (ETT), 3.8 TrustPilot
- Subscribers: unlimited
- Emails per month: 6,000
Strongly focused on segmentation and targeting to improve engagement, if that’s the priority for parent communication.
- Rating: 4.0 (ETT), 4.0 TrustPilot
- Subscribers: 1,000
- Emails per month: unlimited
User-friendly to create emails with no technical knowledge, can also include videos by converting to animated GIFs.
- Rating: 4.5 (ETT), 4.7 TrustPilot
- Subscribers: 2,500
- Emails per month: 15,000
Lots of design templates to help communication teams get creative. Targeting tools built in to increase engagement.
- Rating: 3.5 (ETT), 4.6 TrustPilot
- Subscribers: unlimited
- Emails per month: 9,000
Performance data and results-focused tool, with powerful analytics to identify your most engaged parents.
- Rating: 4.0 (ETT), 4.2 TrustPilot
- Subscribers: 2,500
- Emails per month: 15,000
Register for future workshops
We hope this is a useful guide for schools considering the need to improve parent engagement. The newsletter is just a small part of that improvement but can play a key role, given its frequency.
If you are interested in developing a more strategic approach to parent communication and engagement, please register to receive our regular newsletters, which contain information about forthcoming free parent communication workshops. These are currently being conducted via Zoom.