Members Stories

Conversation with Agness O’Brien, PTFA Chair, Colchester County High School for Girls

Agness O'Brien

Agnes is the chair of the PTFA at Colchester County High School for Girls. She’s built that role four years and during this time, has dramatically increased the funds raised and parent engagement there. More recently, Agnes has added to her portfolio an employed role at her school as a development officer. She’s also the founder of a very successful Facebook community that provides free resources for parents and students preparing for entrance exams for grammar and independent schools. Needless to say, education and parent communities is at the heart of everything she does.

Listen to the conversation here or read the highlights below.

Susan Burton: 

How did you enter the wonderful world of Parent Associations and volunteering to help build your school community?

Agnes O’bryan: 

Well I’ve always been a volunteer in my local communities. So when I first came to the country, I’m from Malaysia originally. So when I first came to England about 20 years ago, I got involved in the local church and village community center. And through these groups I just learned a lot about the culture here and the sense of belonging to these communities made me a bit more active in other areas where volunteering was needed.

So I loved being involved in the toddler groups when the kids were young. So naturally when they started primary school, I got straight into the PTFA from there. Most of my involvement was mostly to organize curry nights because I love cooking. So that’s where I started to really get more and more interested in whatever events they would do at school. I’d always volunteer to bake. So some of these events we used to fetch about a £1,000 per event. So yes, I started loving organizing events at the school so I’ve always been volunteering to do things like that and that was advancement itself. So when my eldest then start secondary school, I had one child in primary and one child in secondary school but my biggest worry was with the older child because I then lost all the contacts with parents.

And going to a grammar school with a 60 mile radius, my daughter was always coming back and saying, “I’ve got a party in Brentwood.” Or in some other part of the country where it’s about 30 miles away. For us to drop her off and pick her up not knowing who these families were, there was always the worry about well, is she going to be safe? So that’s when I started looking into how can we get to know these parents because we’ve lost the playground atmosphere.

Susan Burton: 

And also what I’m hearing from you, is that we need to lean on each other. We need to collaborate with each other as parents at the school, and you didn’t find that there was a way of doing that. So you may have started getting into community building through your passion for cooking. Having successes with that. Even generating funds from successful events run off the back of that, then coming into when the kids are getting a bit older that this need on a practical basis not just in terms of the nice to have events, which are wonderful ways of building up trust.

Agnes O’bryan: 

Yes exactly. In order to be able to contribute to whichever school my kids were going to, I needed to know the parents. And that’s where the gap was. Not knowing how to reach out to them because GDPR came in about that same time and schools were saying that well we can’t release parent’s contact details to the PTA and we’d say, “Yes you can.” So that’s where Classlist and all the confidence grew within me to say, “Let’s push this in.”

Susan Burton:

It’s great to have been there to help out. So you’ve been doing community building for a while. And you’ve done it at different levels. What are some of the biggest learnings about building and sustaining a community that you’d like to share with our audience?

Agnes O’bryan:

I’ve always lived by this one cardinal principle which is, you have to give as much as you receive. So that to me was the essential ingredient for the success of any community. Basically, I’ve learned that volunteering allows you to connect with the community and that makes it a better place. Especially for me where when I first came I didn’t know anyone, but suddenly the community around me was what kept me going.

Susan Burton:

What a wonderful way of describing it. You started off giving, and then of course you get the benefits of it.

Agnes O’bryan:

Exactly. It wasn’t always easy getting volunteers, but persistence pays off.

Susan Burton:

What are some of the tricks that you’ve used to get sign-ups? Any other tricks that you’ve used?

Agnes O’bryan:

Previously, whenever I was in PTAs that I wasn’t in charge of, I found that when you’re told to do something people don’t like it. Delegating is one thing, but letting them have a choice of what they want to do. What they’re more comfortable doing. That is really the key, because that’s where when you start having these volunteer sign-ups through Classlist you’ve now got that. That really helped. Giving them the free hand to choose what they want. The sooner you get in and choose the jobs you want to do, the better it is because you get what you want to. What you like to do.

Susan Burton:

You empowered them.

Agnes O’bryan:

Yes, exactly. A personal note from the chair of PTFA to say, “Well done. That went really well. I’m going to make you do that next time because you’re really good at what you’re doing.” So that works. Whatever age you are, a bit of flattering always works.

Someone who’s good at graphics may want to say, “Well I’ll do the posters for you.” Someone who’s good at getting raffle prizes will say, “Well I’ll go and get that organised for you.” So that’s where it makes your life easier rather than you having to ring around and say, “Would you mind doing this?” The begging process, ditch that.

Susan Burton:

Do you put together a wish list of things that you would like people to do? 

Agnes O’bryan:

Yes. The list of volunteers includes even the number of hours required. Before any event, there are always things. Different stages of planning an event, you always have to say, “I need this number of volunteers to do this.” So if you are happy to do that, can you put your names on? So people will collaborate with friends they want to work with. They would choose their own teams. The subcommittees that you can choose, let them organise it. So that’s giving them ownership.

Susan Burton:

Perfect. So onto the next question. It’s been interesting times now between community building online and offline, what do you think is the optimal balance between the two?

Agnes O’bryan:

It’s a tough challenge to actually find the right combination of both online and offline community building. Too much online communication, too many messages every day which could sometimes lead to members leaving or turning off notification. But that’s a choice. But as long as there’s some engaging communication every time… If it’s always something that’s interesting, “Oh there’s a message from Classlist. I wonder what it’s about today.” You want to create interest in them. You don’t want it to be, we want something from you every time. Sometimes it could be just community news that would be nice to know.

Susan Burton:

What are some examples of some of the things that you think that have worked well in terms of some of the communication messages?

Agnes O’bryan:

Sometimes things that’s happening in school other than the PTA stuff. We work in collaboration with the school itself. Some of the communications that we send out is good to know for parents, from what the school is trying to send out. Not every parent reads parent bulletins. They don’t read them -from top to bottom. They do not. If they’re not reading what the school is emailing or sending out, maybe we can help. And the school likes that. That’s what they liked the most about what we’re doing, because we’re actually helping them to reach out to parents. That’s what has really worked for my school.

Logging in and out of laptops takes time, but everything is on your fingertips when it’s on your mobile. So where there’s an app, that’s where they prefer to go. And we have that.

Susan Burton:

Looking at your efforts, did you have to pivot during lockdown and COVID? How has that changed the things that you do?

Agnes O’bryan:

I have to give all credit to Classlist because it proved to be an important tool to connect parents at school during the lockdown. We all feel the loneliness. We all feel the lack of human interaction. It really affects all of us. The cases of mental health are on the rise, but that’s where I said, “We need to see our friends. We need to be able to communicate. Even if it’s virtual, we need to do what we can.” We organised zoom coffee mornings, as you guys suggested and what’s your quizzes. In fact, the very first virtual quiz that we did, not only was it fundraising for the school, we gave half of whatever we took to NHS England.

Susan Burton:

Amazing. You had a very creative quiz. I’d love to hear a little bit more about it and everybody else would too. Can you describe it? 

Agnes O’bryan:

For us the Quiz was Halloween themed and we did it on Friday the 13th because that fell within the spooky theme. So that really worked well and we really enjoyed it. It’s going to be a thing to stay. Even if we do go back to the normal event at school, we might carry on doing the virtual ones for those who can’t really get there.

Susan Burton:

Particularly you mentioned at the beginning that you have a wide catchment area.

Agnes O’bryan:

Oh 60 mile radius, yes. 50 different spoken languages because it’s a grammar school with kids coming from all over the place. International kids would come to the school as well. People moved to the country and to the area just to get the kids into the school.

Agnes O’bryan:

Yep. I’m always telling the different form groups to try and challenge each other. Try and see which form is the smartest of us all, that thing. So you create that challenge, you create the atmosphere of rivalry. It always works.

Susan Burton:

So in terms of looking at fundraising, how important is that for your school community? You said you did something amazing by giving money to the NHS.

Agnes O’bryan:

Well on top of that, we also with the success of that quiz that when we gave some money to the NHS, we carried on Classlist asking for donations of masks and PPE and we donated hundreds of homemade masks from the communities. From the school community to the NHS. And then from then on when we started going back to school in September, we started donating it for vulnerable students. Those with asthma and all sorts of health conditions, school, teachers and themselves. How difficult it is to wait for school communications to go out once a week. With Classlist you can do it every day and say, “Look guys, we need this. Our kids are going back to school. For your child and my child to be safe, we want to make sure we’ve got enough of all of this.”

Susan Burton:

And I’m sure the school appreciated that because you’re taking responsibility and ownership for them. You’re taking something off their to do list.

Agnes O’bryan:

Exactly. They were so appreciative of it all and they saw the value coming from the community in the past four years. I would always say, “It’s been since Classlist came on board.” It was so hard for me to sell Classlist to the senior leadership team initially. Obviously because everybody’s always thinking of, oh is it anything like Facebook or anything else where things could go wrong. Communities like that, there’s always things that would go wrong anywhere. I tried explaining, it took me two and a half years to slowly… They say, “Okay, you can start with your seven and then you can start with eight and finally when they saw how many came together to help out… Christmas we had hundreds of volunteers.

When they saw all that, they said, “You know what, tell the whole school to sign up.”

Susan Burton:

So your recommendation would be, if the school is a bit hesitant to pilot first with a year group?

Agnes O’bryan:

Yes.

Susan Burton:

This then enabled you to get going and build the confidence of the school because they were a little bit concerned. And then they overcame that when they saw the results of bringing the committee together.

Agnes O’bryan:

Exactly. If you haven’t tried it… I know this year it was a bit of a setback for us because the year seven welcome party could not happen, but last year it was the biggest success ever because the parents were invited to come to the welcome party. We never did that before. For the past few years we’ve been doing it but what we did was, we sold tickets to Classlist So if your child wants to attend, you’ve got to sign up to Classlist in order to buy the tickets.

Susan Burton:

And that’s another way of recruiting parents.

Agnes O’bryan:

That’s the sign up trick.

Agnes O’bryan:

So that really worked.

Agnes O’bryan:

You can collect payments and you do not have to then start creating a list of attendees because you can just download that from Classlist.

Susan Burton:

So in terms of Looking at your proudest achievements, you’ve taken a couple of years to persuade the school to go forward, what would be your three highlights?

Agnes O’bryan:

Getting Classlist approved by the school and getting positive feedback from the school management on how it has hugely changed the parent community was my biggest achievement. I set out to prove to them and I did it.

Agnes O’bryan:

If anything, I actually shed a tear when they finally said, “Get the whole lot of them on board. I felt, yes we’ve done this. It really was something that I’ve worked so hard for and finally seeing it happen was amazing. And item number two, would be getting lots of parents saying that without Classlist, they would not have felt connected with the school. That’s what they said. In the days of COVID now, it’s going to be the new norm that people are going to rely on the online community. It’s going to take a long time before we go back to how things were, but now more than ever, Classlist will play an important role in getting this…

Susan Burton:

Well we hope so.

Agnes O’bryan:

Yes. And the last thing I would say, you want it three didn’t you? I thought that when COVID happened I said, “That’s it. We’re not going to be able to raise a single penny this year because this is going to be here for a long time.” But I proved myself wrong because overnight one morning at 4:00 AM I said, “How can I get the second hand uniform going this year for the new year 7s coming in September? We need to get the donations in, but how do we do that?” So I researched at 4:00 AM and said, “How are charity shops doing in this? How are they getting the donations coming in? How do you handle it and all that.” And that’s when I got this idea to have a weekly bin put outside the school reception for people to deposit their donations of uniform and revision books and fast forward two months later, by the time we’ve collected all the stuff and prepared for our first ever appointment-based uniform sale, we made £7,000. Over the summer holidays.

Agnes O’bryan:

But it was all through Classlist with getting parents and time and again telling them donate and this is when we’re going to be having all of the sales and all that you pick your choice, pick your slots now or you will not get a chance because we don’t know when we’re going to do the next sales.

Susan Burton:

Right. So you did the scheduling on Classlist as well?

Agnes O’bryan:

Yeah.

Susan Burton:

Yeah. Brilliant. And then in terms of handling all this stuff, how did you do that? Is there any tips you can share?

Agnes O’bryan:

Basically I put a bin in just outside the reception. Big blue wheelie bin with the signs deposit your stuff here, but it has to be done between Monday to Thursday only. So that allows you to have until Monday morning when you’ve got your 72 hours of letting it go sell all of it.

… And then after that, well I normally have a big black bin bag in there so I’ll just put a tire rack, put the whole thing into the back of my car and just leave it for a couple more days before I then take them out, sort them out. Everything goes through a hot boil wash, and then you sort out what needs mending if there’s mending needed anywhere or buttons replaced and all that. It’s a huge amount of work, but you know you’re making money for the school.

We’ve never made that much in just four days of sales.

Susan Burton:

Four days of sale. That’s amazing. So what I’m hearing a lot, and hopefully we’ll get to summarise this because you’ve already demonstrated a lot of leadership skills. You’ve been able to persuade management of the school, you’ve been able to recruit and get parents on board and lots of volunteers.

Susan Burton:

What do you think you’ve learned from now that you could, you could recommend to our listeners that they think wow, what I’m doing is worthwhile? Okay. I’m giving, which is what you started off with. I should learn some things which are transferable into my next stage in life.

Agnes O’bryan:

Personally what I feel my biggest selling point about myself is that I’m a very giving person. I give my time and I take the time to research what is needed in order to get the community going the way it should. I’ve always got a focusing mind on… I visualise what I want to see and I go for it. But the most important quality that you need as a leader is to be able to delegate. When I say delegate, you have to have the confidence, I know the tendency is always there to micromanage people under you, but you have to have the confidence to let them get on with the chosen tasks that they have said I will do. I think that is really important. Otherwise they will say, “Well if you want things done your way, why don’t you do it?”

Now one other thing that I am working with the school, because I’m also working as a development officer at the school-

Susan Burton:

I want to hear about that. What came first?

Agnes O’bryan:

Because of my involvement in the PTA, I’ve showcased my abilities to fundraise.

Susan Burton:

And then they’ve offered you a job.

Agnes O’bryan:

They did. That position was never there and it just came up, would you join us as the development officer and give us more ideas on how we can fundraise for the school in general? We’ve just launched the 500 club, so that’s 20 grand, but 10,000 of it going to parents as payouts, on a monthly basis we give out a thousand pounds. And then I’m working now on the alumni.

Susan Burton:

You’ve also build a community on Facebook that offers resources for 11-plus exams.

Agnes O’bryan:

Yes. I’ve got 10,800 members and it’s growing by about 200 members every week. So that’s another area where a lot of the parents from school know about it, it’s just basically a free resource site on Facebook where parents can get free resources from preparation for gram school right through to A-levels which is another thing that I found being in the leadership role that I have. It’s helped me to gain confidence in what I’m doing and what I’m achieving, helping parents.

Yes. So that’s among the jobs that I’m doing. So it’s interesting. The three things that I do. The 11-plus club, the PTA and the school position that I’ve got now, it’s all interrelated. I always link all three.

Susan Burton:

Well I can see that you started this journey and then it’s opened up new avenues-

Agnes O’bryan:

Exactly.

Susan Burton:

And that’s is a big takeout for all those who are working in parent associations that look where you can get to.

Agnes O’bryan:

You can go places. One door opens another.

Susan Burton:

And be proud of it.

Agnes O’bryan:

Well I am immensely proud of it. And it’s what keeps me going. Lockdown would be a total lockdown for me, if not for the fact that I’ve got these other things to look forward to.

 

Susan Burton:

On to my last question, do you have a favourite book or a favourite podcast that you could recommend?

Agnes O’bryan:

Do you know what? More than anything, I am more onto online stuff. I love Pinterest, believe it or not. A lot of my fundraising ideas, now this is a top secret. A lot of my fundraising ideas come from Pinterest.

Susan Burton:

Agnes thank you so much for joining me today.

Agnes O’bryan:

My pleasure entirely Susan. Thank you.

About the author

Susan Burton

Susan Burton

Susan is the CEO and founder of Classlist.