Texting parents about tests and homework can improve maths results and reduce absenteeism

Helping parents to engage in their child’s learning by texting them about upcoming tests or homework deadlines can boost secondary school pupils’ maths results by the equivalent of an extra month in the classroom, according to the results of a new trial published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.

Almost 16,000 students in 36 English secondary schools took part in the randomised controlled trial of the Parent Engagement Project, delivered by researchers from the University of Bristol and Harvard University. Parents were sent an average of 30 texts over one school year (roughly one per week) with content ranging from dates of upcoming tests and warnings about missed homework, to conversation prompts on what their child had learnt that day. 

The independent evaluators from Queen’s University Belfast found that pupils receiving the intervention made an additional month’s progress in maths compared with a similar group whose parents didn’t get the texts. Absenteeism was reduced too. They reported that schools embraced the programme and a vast majority of parents were supportive of the programme including the content, frequency and timing of texts. 

Previous research has shown that while parental engagement is an effective way of improving attainment, little is known about how to do this successfully – and, in particular, how to reach parents whose own experiences of schools were not positive. At a maximum cost to schools of just £6 per pupil across the school year, today’s results suggest that texting parents could be a straightforward and cost-effective way of improving attainment through parental engagement. The approach is likely to be even cheaper than this as most schools will already have the required texting software and messages can be free if parents have downloaded the relevant software (which is also free) onto their smartphones.

Evaluations of two more trials designed to find out what does and doesn’t work when it comes to engaging parents, are also published by the EEF today. In contrast to the light-touch approach of the Parent Engagement Project, both aimed to engage parents through face-to-face programmes:

  • Parent Academy, delivered by researchers from the University of Chicago and evaluated by NatCen, offered parents the opportunity to participate in 12 classes over the course of an academic year. The sessions were designed to equip them with the skills to support their child’s learning in numeracy and literacy.
  • SPOKES (Supporting Parents on Kids’ Education in Schools), delivered by Plymouth Parent Partnership and the University of Oxford, and evaluated by the Institute for Effective Education, gaveparents of five and six year old struggling readers ten group sessions to help them support their children’s learning at home.

Both independent evaluations reported that, for a number of different reasons, the interventions struggled to persuade parents to attend regularly. While they did not find evidence of impact for all children, both delivered valuable findings.

One of the aims of the Parenting Academy trialwas to find out whether financial incentives could be successful in changing parents’ behaviours and improving their attendance. Some of the parents were paid £30 to attend each session.For these parents, attendance was much higher, suggesting that financial incentives may be an effective way to engage and retain parents in interventions of this type.

Although the evaluation of SPOKES didn’t find an overall improvement in reading scores for all children of parents who attended, there were some promising results for boys, and for all children on some broader, longer-term measures. This could mean that the programme is effective for boys in particular, or for all children in terms of Key Stage 1 literacy scores. The EEF will investigate this further and report again next year.

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said:

“We know that it can be very difficult to get parents more involved, particularly when their children get older. It would seem that the simple and cheap approach of regular texts could be a better bet for schools than expecting parents to turn up at school for classes of their own."

Also published today are the results of another large-scale randomised controlled trial, the first designed to find out if taking part in groups like the Scout Association, Sea Cadets or St John Ambulance can have an impact on exam results as well as on wider life skills.”

Delivered by the Youth United Foundation, 7,781 children in 71 schools took part in this trial of Youth Social Action. The evaluators from Durham University found that the students benefited from a small positive impact in reported skills such as self-confidence and teamwork. They found no evidence that there was any benefit for academic skills, but problems with the quality of data means that this result is not conclusive.

Sir Peter Lampl. Chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation and of the Sutton Trust, said:  

“We know that your chances of doing well in life are only partially shaped by your academic attainment, essential life skills such as confidence, articulacy, working with others and social skills play a crucial role. Yet we know very little about how to develop these attributes in children. “There is a belief that taking part in activities like Scouts helps to build the essential skills young people increasingly need to be successful in life, so it is encouraging to see that the young people taking part in the trial of Youth Social Action which include Sea Cadets, Fire Cadets and Scouts reported an increase in their confidence and team-working skills.“

Other evaluation reports published by the EEF today include:

  • Let’s Think Secondary Science (LTSS), a programme delivered by Let’s Think Forum that helps teachers develop the thinking and scientific reasoning skills of their students. The independent evaluation from the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York found that it had no impact on science test scores, and this may be partly due to difficulties with implementing the intervention. However previous evaluations of a similar programme suggest that the impact of the approach on attainment becomes apparent over a longer time frame. The EEF will track the pupils involved in this evaluation to find out if it does.
  • Evaluators from the University of York and Durham University found no evidence that Affordable Maths Tuition, a one-to-one tutoring programme where pupils received maths tuition over the Internet from trained maths graduates in India and Sri Lanka, had an impact on Key Stage 2 maths results. However, teachers were largely positive about the intervention and one-to-one tuition is still a promising area for research. The EEF will continue to test different approaches.
  • The Hallé SHINE on Manchester (HSoM) programme, a Saturday school educational programme, was found by evaluators from Durham University to have no additional impact on the reading and maths attainment of underachieving and disadvantaged pupils in Key Stage 2, and the evaluators felt the programme would benefit from further research and development before being offered more widely. However, stakeholders felt that there were noticeable improvements in the behaviour, confidence and social skills of pupils.

Additional information about each trial can be found in the attached PD. For any other questions or to arrange an interview, please contact: Hilary Cornwell on 0207 802 1676.

  1. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is a grant-making charity set up in 2011 by the Sutton Trust as lead foundation in partnership with Impetus Trust (now part of Impetus–The Private Equity Foundation), with a £125m founding grant from the Department for Education. The EEF is dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. Since its launch the EEF has awarded £75.4 million to 127 projects working with over 750,000 pupils in over 7,500 schools across England. The EEF and Sutton Trust are, together, the government-designated What Works Centre for Education.
  2. The Teaching and Learning Toolkit is an accessible summary of educational research developed by the EEF in collaboration with the Sutton Trust and a team of academics at Durham University led by Professor Steve Higgins. The expanded Toolkit covers 34 topics and summarises research from over 10,000 studies. The Toolkit is a live resource which is regularly updated
  3. Researchers from University of Bristol and Harvard University collaborated with Schoolcomms, a company providing parent engagement products to schools. Their website is www.schoolcomms.com