Whether you’re a new parent deciding where to send your first born for reception, wanting a much needed change of scene for sixth form or searching for a new school due to relocating, the first step to finding a new school is to get under its skin with a visit, right? With schools once again closing their gates to all but a few children – and with no certainty as to when they will reopen – the ‘Virtual Open Day’ has become the main tool at a school’s disposal when trying to attract prospective pupils and their parents.
Clearly nothing can quite beat that intuitive feeling you get when you cross the threshold of a school, walk the corridors and breathe in the atmosphere; the connection you make when you shake hands with the head or the little heart-skip you get when you realise you want your three year old to grow up to be just like that sixth-former. But, out of necessity, virtual tours are here to stay, so what should you expect and how do you get the most out of them?
At any time of the year, a school’s website will carry promotional content designed to impress potential applicants. You’ll see anything, from a headteacher’s welcome letter and photo galleries to videos and interviews with pupils and staff, but for a virtual open day during the Covid-19 pandemic, parents should expect to be able to gaze a little further into the heart and soul of a school. Virtual open days are a relatively new tactic for schools and most are still feeling their way until they alight upon the perfect formula. We’ve seen over the last year that each school has its own way of doing things. This is hardly surprising given the range of buildings, facilities, staff (not to mention budgets) found in UK schools but the general aim is to bring the sights and sounds of a traditional open day to your screen at home.
Large senior independent schools have a lot to show off – from professional theatres to Olympic-size swimming pools – and the budget to do so, whereas little prep schools may want to play more on small class sizes and a nurturing environment. Likewise, with schools in the state sector, the range is huge. Some have undoubtedly ploughed resources into new websites and glossy productions to entice the brightest pupils in a competitive market while others have not been able to do so. It would be fair for parents to expect the length and depth of a virtual open day to tally with the size and riches of the school in question.
Is an online open day just like the real thing?
Well, that depends. Different schools have different ideas on what constitutes a virtual open day. For some, the virtual open day is a programme of live presentations and events taking place at a particular time on a particular day which families can engage and interact with from home. For others, a ‘virtual open day’ may actually be a section of the school’s website which offers specially crafted, pre-recorded content which can stay online in perpetuity, available for anyone to view. Plenty of schools combine these different approaches by including pre-recorded content in their live events and by publishing on their website the recordings of past live events which families can watch at their convenience.
With live virtual open days, as with the trad open day experience, parents may be asked to register on the day, or ahead of time – independent schools in particular will want to keep in touch with any interested parties – and you will be sent a schedule, along with web links and access codes for any of the features not open to the browsing public. This should include a welcome talk from the headteacher – live or pre-recorded depending on the school’s confidence in the technology and/or attitude to risk; a tour of the school and grounds (these range from Bafta-worthy, professional movies to a live lap of the school with a hand-held device); ideally a fully interactive Q&A forum with senior staff, and the option to book some face time with the head, senior staff or someone relevant to your child’s interests. Be prepared for this. Taking your chance to have some one-to-one screen time with your preferred member of staff will allow you to ask questions relating specifically to your child. And remember, when considering independent schools, this one-to-one time also gives you the opportunity to make a positive impression. As much as you are observing the school, an independent school may also be looking at you to see if you would be a good fit for their community.
We think that pupils are always the best ambassadors for their school so are pleased to see some virtual open days featuring children live (or pre-recorded) from school or their living rooms, taking part in Q&As with prospective parents. It’s never going to be the same as moving out of a teacher’s earshot at a real open day and asking your pupil guides, ‘So what’s the food really like then?’ but until normality returns and we can fill up our diaries with school visits, this as good as it’s likely to get. It’s not a real-life visit, no, but the way a school chooses to present itself online can tell you a great deal about its ethos and culture.
So, you know which schools you want to visit, what next?
- Get organised. Make sure you have a plan. Even in the halcyon pre-Covid-19 days of being able to freely attend open days, parents viewing multiple schools often find them all merging into one when it comes to drawing up a shortlist. This is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make for your child so notes, spreadsheets, colour coding and anything else that helps keep on top of the information overload are things to consider.
- Read up. There’s so much to read. School websites, inspection reports from Ofsted or ISI, performance charts and league tables from the government or newspapers…and of course reviews. The Good Schools Guide has been publishing impartial reviews of the UK’s top schools for more than thirty years. We’ve spent time at each of the 1,300 schools which feature in our books and on our website, interviewed every head and eaten school lunch in thousands of dining halls. So, if the pandemic means you can’t visit the schools on your list, rest assured that our expert reviewers have been there, got the jute bag and can give you the warts and all picture.
- Make direct contact. Given the recession and Covid's toll on family finances, some independent schools are looking uneasily at their pupil numbers. Only the most illustrious and in-demand establishments (and most schools in or around London) can afford to be blasé with parental enquiries, so drop the director of admissions or registrar an email with your questions or request a phone call. They might not be able to give you lots of time but they will be keen to hear from you and their willingness to bend over backwards to help (or not) will speak volumes about the culture of the school.
- Special needs? If you already know that your child has learning difficulties, health issues or special educational needs, ask to speak directly with the SENCo to find out how they have dealt with similar issues in the past. If you’re not reassured that they know exactly how to deal with your child’s needs, look elsewhere.
- Gather opinions. In these difficult times, you could do worse than asking friends, online forums or social media for insight. Differing opinions are inevitable - a school can be perfect for one child but not a good fit for an other - but go into it with your eyes open (be wary of parents with grudges, though) and with some good questions, and it might leave you better equipped for when you get to speak to the schools themselves.
- Ask the experts. If the whole experience becomes overwhelming, and you have the means, consider appointing an educational consultant to help with your search – or just guide you towards the right decision when you have done the groundwork. The Good Schools Guide education consultants know all the schools in their respective geographical areas inside and out, having visited most of them as writers, and are on hand for anything from a full school search to a 30 minute phone call to discuss your options once you have offers of places. With bespoke services for state and independent schools as well as for families moving within the UK or from overseas, it’s more affordable than you may think. Take a look at goodschoolsguide.co.uk/consultants.
- Trust your instincts. Finally, remember that nobody knows your child – and your family values – like you do. League tables and exam results are important but they are not the be all and end all and don’t tell you whether or not the culture will best suit your family. Once you have your shortlist, and offers in hand, trust your instincts and choose the school where you think your child will be happiest; they are sure to thrive there.
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