Since schools reopened, parents aren’t encouraged to hang around at drop off and pick up. Indeed, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, has instructed that , “Parents should not linger to gossip at the school gate because of the risk of passing coronavirus between families.”
This clearly makes sense. But just as keeping children isolated at home has unwelcome consequences, preventing parents getting together comes at a cost. Susan Burton, CEO of Classlist takes a look at recent research suggesting that school gossip can help communities to work better.
Gossiping at the school gate is good
According to Classlist research, primary carers spend more than 20 hours a week on school related administration. This excludes homeschooling. School gate gossip isn’t just “he said she said”. It offers a short cut to clarifying information sent by the school. It helps to sort out after school activities, and when kids can get together. Robb Willer, a Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, found that gossip is a strong force promoting cooperation among groups. His team concluded that the threat of adverse gossip deters untrustworthy behaviour. When parents don’t meet face to face, and this feedback loop is broken, the community becomes weaker.
School communities in normal times are remarkably powerful and highly valued sources of information. Classlist research suggests that parents rank far above other sources – including social media and neighbours – as a trusted source.
The power of weak ties and chance meetings
The press is starting to highlight a significant downside of social distancing – elimination of chance encounters. This reduces the opportunity for individuals to form ‘weak ties’. Weak ties are a hot topic in the business community. BBC journalist Ian Leslie in his recent article “Why your ‘weak-tie’ friendships may mean more than you think“, talks about the loss of friendly faces and conversation.
Those managing a largely remote workforce are increasingly concerned about the loss of weak ties on company innovation. Leslie refers to the pathbreaking Nobel Prize shortlisted paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” written by Stanford Professor Mark Granovetter in 1973. The surprising conclusion is that the quantity of weak ties an individual has with others is more important than strong ties. This applies particularly to sharing new information, opportunities and ideas. Granovetter’s research showed that the more acquaintances we have, the better for our well being, happiness and, not least, our job prospects. We rely for much more than we realise on chance encounters and casual conversations. These in turn give rise to a deeper sense of belonging.
School leaders need weak ties
The loss of weak ties is even more serious for Headteachers. Around 2 million pupils start primary and secondary school in the UK this week. There won’t be any of the normal school gate face to face interaction. With staggered school starts and locked school gates, chance encounters won’t happen. Nor will there be any new family welcome gatherings, or coffee mornings. Consequently new parents can’t easily access fellow parents to help their children make friends. Or arrange playdates and shared childcare with families they trust. With so much job uncertainty nannies and paid childcare are to fill this gap.
Implications for schools are wide ranging. Child mental health issues are well documented. But the contributory stress on parents, where they might otherwise strike up new friendships with new parents, could be significant. Instead of parents relying on each other, they may turn more to school staff. And this won’t just be for emotional support. Classlist data indicates that 25% of online conversations between parents are reminders. Sent by parents who want to help their peers, generally around time tables, drop offs and pickups. Around 30% of conversations concern lost property, birthday parties and queries about homework. If parents are less engaged in doing this, and can’t meet in person to swap info, some additional burden could well fall on the school.
The difficulty of engaging parents in person also bodes poorly for school fundraising. Families are already under economic pressure. Unfortunately, the parent associations and parent councils who typically help coordinate fund raising events are putting most of these off until next year.
Classlist is trialling a solution
A few businesses are trialling virtual ‘chat lottery” services to try and address this. Start-ups like Donut, Watercooler and Cuppa nudge employees to meet fellow colleagues for a virtual coffee. And schools could move the same way. Over 10% of all conversations on Classlist contain a Zoom link for video chats. This was originally to support remote learning. But with most schools back, Classlist’s events tool is increasingly used for welcoming new parents with virtual meetings. Face to face video would have been inconceivable as a way of meeting strangers six months ago. Now parents are now quite comfortable with the concept. Interestingly, our survey of parents last term showed that around 50% of parents believe it is possible to form friendships via video link.
Classbudi a new video chat tool
Based on this evidence of need, and the new ubiquity of video, we have created a new feature Classbudi. It allows parents to meet others in their class and year, in small groups, over video. After initial trials in Classlist schools in Scandinavia, which had a very positive response, we are rolling it out in beta to selected UK schools. The service is primarily for parents to meet each other. Although staff members are keen to use it to build ties with their parent body.
Contact us here if you would like to sign up for our waiting list.