In the run-up to Anti-Bullying Week, new data shows that at least 11,300 school leaders across the country have received negative or offensive comments on social media against themselves, their school or their staff.
While cyberbullying among pupils remains a significant concern, findings released today by The Key, the organisation that provides leadership and management support to schools, reveal that school leaders are facing their own set of issues on social media – often at the hands of pupils’ parents.
Leaders in more than half (56%) of mainstream schools across England said they had encountered negative or offensive comments on social media from children’s parents over the past year, and almost two in 10 (15%) said they’d been the victim of cyberbullying during their career.
Personal insults, grievances and potentially libellous remarks are among the types of comments that school staff reportedly face from parents via social media sites, like Facebook.
One primary headteacher told The Key: “Social media is a massive concern for schools to deal with. Negative and inaccurate comments that would never be said face-to-face are often posted by parents online, and most of the time the school is unaware of these.”
Similarly, another school leader said: “Most of the posting occurs outside of school, making it difficult to police or control.”
The Key's survey of more than 1,000 school leaders found that issues were more prevalent at a primary level, with almost six in 10 (59%) saying they’ve had to deal with parents’ negative posts on social media, in comparison to almost half (46%) of secondary school leaders.
Speaking about the findings, Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key, said: “Social media is becoming a more and more prominent and influential part of everyday life, and schools are having to adapt quickly to the many new challenges, and opportunities, it brings.
“Inaccurate or offensive comments are not only upsetting for those individuals involved, but at a time when schools are increasingly having to market themselves to attract pupils and staff, such public and negative remarks can have a detrimental impact on their reputation.”
Schools are using a variety of approaches to support and manage engagement with parents and their wider communities online. Some, for example, are incorporating parent/carer codes of conduct into school policies to set expectations around the use of social media.
Others ask parents and carers to refrain from discussing the business of school or children attending school in any public forum, while many request that complaints are made via official school channels rather than social networking sites.
Fergal Roche continues: “Schools take complaints seriously, and have formal processes to ensure that any issues are resolved quickly and with pupils’ interests at the fore. Nevertheless, it’s important that schools recognise the potential risks of social media. Building strong, two-way relationships with parents and carers, and having procedures that are clear and mutually beneficial, helps to ensure that everyone feels part of an inclusive community where concerns are aired constructively.”
Dr Kathryn Weston, Director at Keystone Aspire and a parental engagement expert, said: "The best research evidence tells us that if schools engage with parents in an effective and meaningful way, the benefits for children and their learning outcomes can be substantial. Good two-way communication between parents and schools is fundamental to developing positive relationships. Social media can play a significant role in nurturing this relationship.”
One headteacher, who has seen the rewards of using social media as a way to engage with parents, explained: “Social media has been an overwhelming force for good in our school. We use it to broadcast all the exciting activities that are going on in a moment-to-moment way - meaning parents are able to connect with school activities far more easily than in the past.
“Parents think that it has contributed to a feel-good atmosphere throughout the school and report that they enjoy having something they can ask children about when they get home.”
For more guidance on how schools can respond to negative comments online, please follow: http://key.sc/dealing_with_parents_online_comments
For information on how to engage and communicate with parents effectively, please see: https://cpd.thekeysupport.com/parental-engagement
 At least one school leader in 56% of all 20,179 mainstream schools in the maintained sector = 11,300 school leaders. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/schools-pupils-and-their-characteristics-january-2016. (Total schools excluding independent, special, nurseries and pupil referral units.)
Notes to editors
About the survey
The Key invited a sample of its members to complete its annual survey in January 2016. The questionnaire for this study was designed by The Key and conducted online using Survey Monkey. 1,188 school leaders from mainstream schools completed the full survey. The survey response data was weighted to match the population profile of schools in England in terms of region, school phase and school type, so the data described in this summary can therefore be taken to provide an indication of the opinions of school leaders in mainstream schools across England.