Texting Parents

The Parent Engagement Project (PEP) was a school-level intervention designed to improve pupil outcomes by engaging parents in their children’s learning. The intervention involved text messages being sent to parents using school communications systems, such as Schoolcomms. Texts informed parents about dates of upcoming tests, whether homework was submitted on time, and what their children were learning at school. The programme was developed collaboratively by research teams from the University of Bristol and Harvard University and was delivered between September 2014 and July 2015. The trial involved 15,697 students in Years 7, 9 and 11 from 36 English secondary schools, with schools sending an average of 30 texts to each parent over the period of the trial.

This study was an efficacy trial in which the developers of the intervention managed its delivery to ensure optimal implementation. It was a cluster randomised controlled trial with randomisation at the Key Stage level, designed to determine the impact of the intervention on the academic outcomes of students in English, maths, and science, and the impact on absenteeism. A process evaluation used focus groups, telephone surveys, interviews, and an online survey to provide data on implementation and to capture the perceptions and experiences of participating parents, pupils, and teachers. The project was co-funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and Nominet Trust as part of a funding round focused on digital technology.  

Key Conclusions

The following conclusions summarise the project outcome

  1. Children who had the intervention experienced about one month of additional progress in maths compared to other children. This positive result is unlikely to have occurred by chance.

  2. Children who had the intervention had reduced absenteeism compared to other children. This positive result is unlikely to have occurred by chance.

  3. Children who had the intervention appeared to experience about one month of additional progress in English compared to other children. However, analysis suggests that this finding might have been affected by bias introduced by missing data, so we cannot reliably draw this conclusion. There is no evidence to suggest that the intervention had an impact on science attainment.

  4. Schools embraced the programme and liked its immediacy and low cost. Many respondents felt that the presence of a dedicated coordinator would be valuable to monitor the accuracy and frequency of texts. Schools should consider whether they would be able to provide this additional resource.

  5. The vast majority of parents were accepting of the programme, including the content, frequency, and timing of texts.

What is the impact?

There were small positive impacts on maths and English, and a reduction in absenteeism. As discussed above, the evaluation team conducted tests to check that missing information did not bias the results. These tests supported the impact on maths and absenteeism but found a risk of bias to the English outcome. The positive effects of the programme in relation to a reduction in absenteeism was surprising given that no texts related to attendance were sent, and is perhaps related to the increased monitoring by parents of children’s school-related activities overall, creating an environment in which pupils felt less able or willing to truant. It appears the intervention was more effective in reducing absenteeism in the KS4 cohort compared to KS3. This result is of particular note given that absenteeism increases as pupils progress through school.

Of the parent outcomes that were measured, the only positive effect that was unlikely to have occurred by chance was in relation to the likelihood of parents asking their child about revising for upcoming tests, where intervention parents were more likely to do so than control parents.

Although the effects of the intervention were low, the programme is inexpensive and relatively easy for schools to implement. Parents reported general satisfaction with the frequency, content, and timing of the texts, and in the majority of cases talked to their children about the information they were receiving via text from the school. Similarly, the teacher survey and interviews showed that schools were enthusiastic about PEP and liked its immediacy and low cost. Teachers acknowledged that there would need to be a person (or persons) responsible for the coordination of texts within the school—to monitor text content, accuracy, and frequency. Some schools struggled with the more complex and time-consuming texts, such as conversational prompts, and sent these less frequently. 

OutcomeNo. of pupilsEffect size (95% confidence interval)Estimated months’ progressSecurity ratingCost rating
English5,3760.033 (0.004, 0.064)+1 month
Maths5,6130.067 (0.041, 0.092)+1 month
Science4,726-0.013 (-0.048, 0.022)0 months
Absenteeism7,436-0.054 (-0.079, -0.029)Absenteeism reduction of one half day

How secure is the finding?

Overall, the findings have moderate security. The trial was a two-armed multi-site cluster randomised controlled trial. The trial was well-designed and large. However, pupils from 19% of the schools were not included in the analysis because the schools dropped out of the trial. There were some important differences between the pupils who received the intervention and those in the comparison group; the latter had a higher proportion of students eligible for free school meals.

Boycotts of the SATs tests by schools in 2009/2010 meant that pre-intervention attainment data was missing for a relatively high proportion of pupils who could not therefore be included in the analysis. Tests were conducted to assess the impact of this missing data on the results. These tests supported the findings that the programme had a small positive impact on attainment in mathematics and absenteeism, but suggested that the result for English is less certain and might be the result of bias introduced by missing data. 

How much does it cost?

The intervention cost a total of £7,550 per school (£7.55 per pupil) for the first year of implementation, including training and cover for the staff involved. The annual cost for subsequent years would be £3.25 per pupil per school to cover the cost of 65 texts. Schools that do not already have access to suitable communication software would need additional resources for this. The price of the software varies, but for Schoolcomms is £1,500 a year, bringing the average cost per student over three years to around £5.68 a year.

EEF commentary

We funded this project because evidence suggests that engaging parents in their children’s education can have a positive impact on increasing attainment. A study in the United States found evidence that texting information to parents about children’s attendance and homework submission records was successful in increasing their attainment.

This evaluation found a small positive impact on mathematics attainment and on decreasing absenteeism. While this result was small, the delivery costs for texting parents are very low (a maximum of around £6 per pupil average over three years) making the intervention highly cost-effective.

Several studies of previous interventions that aimed to increase the involvement of parents in their children’s education have not found an impact on attainment, including more intensive and costly projects. The evidence in the Teaching and Learning Toolkit also suggests that changing parents’ behaviour is challenging - especially for parents of older students, such as those who took part in this project. The cost effectiveness of the approach and the easy availability of the technology to schools mean that communicating with parents through text messaging is an approach that school leaders should consider.