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How to nail virtual school open days

A global pandemic won't stop your school search, but it does make it trickier to view them. Queen Anne's head Julia Harrington gives her tips on what to do and ask at a Virtual Open Day.

The global pandemic may have put the brakes on our day to day lives, but when it comes to our kids and their education, decisions cannot be put on hold. The education juggernaut simply will now be stopped, so how the hell do you choose a school, when you can’t actually visit it?

Queen Anne's School Julia Headington

More and more schools are switching to Virtual Open Days – video tours, live Q&As and presentations. Think Question Time without the formality and you’ll nail it. It’s no substitute for a real life experience, but there are benefits too. Here Queen Anne’s School in Caversham’s dynamic head Julia Harrington (a woman who worked for ITV in a previous life) explains the positives and the pitfalls, how parents can get a feel for a place, read between the lines and expose potential problems during a Virtual Open Day. *Pours wine and settles in*. Over to you, Julia…

Virtual Open Days education computer key

What to expect during a Virtual Open Day

Well, first and foremost you can be anywhere. At home with a glass of wine or a cup of tea, at your place of work – there’s no need to travel or worry about childcare. As long as you’re near a computer or a smartphone, then you’re good to go. Every school will do things differently, but at Queen Anne’s we send a link for prospective parents to tour the school by watching a short film. This can be viewed any time and you can go back and watch it as often as you like. We then start the Open Days with discussions and presentations, giving the deputies the opportunity to talk about what we do and how we do it.

It’s a time saver

Virtual Open Days will save you time – something that is increasingly in short supply. No travel to and from the school and the real life tours of the grounds and facilities can be seen in short films. If I’m honest, the hour-long walking tours are great to get a feel for a place, but they’re not always the most engaging for parents. The video tours are quick, usually beautifully shot and you can see so much more. They set the tone.

box on book with lightbumb drawing coming out

Do your homework

If you are considering a school, you’ll already have some knowledge of it from reviews, reputation or from friends and family. But there’s a lot more information available on a school website. Make a note of the academic record, facilities, extra curricular offering, subjects studied, values and look at the content they’re publishing.

Then think about the information that’s not so easily explained by statistics and facts. Have a nose at a school’s social media posts. Look individual stories and how they are communicated. Make a note of the language used. Have a look at any blogs on the website. Those messages will tell you a lot about a school’s ethos, values and passions.

What to ask

In light of the pandemic, I’d be asking what are you going to do if GCSEs are irrelevant in the future? Will Centrally Assessed Grades (CAG) replace traditional exams? What are the holistic values and criteria of a school that will enable children to adapt to the new landscape?

But it’s really important to quiz a school on its pastoral care and how it is being delivered in the age of COVID. It’s the fluffy stuff that gets missed, but it is more vital than ever. Where does the creativity exist within the school? What employability skills are you teaching my child and how is it taught? Curriculum is all very well, but the differences between schools will become apparent through thoughtful enquiry about the softer bits.

Parents worries right now are all the same: how is sport, music and drama being impacted by the current Covid restrictions? Will my child be happy? What if my child doesn’t settle? It’s all about trust. And if you don’t feel you have got an sufficient answer to any of your concerns, don’t be afraid to go back and ask to speak to the head or member of the senior team.

Education Child blackboard question marks

How do you get that all-important feel?

This is biggest downside. That gut feeling is hard to replicate online. Speaking to the pupils and seeing the school in action is something you do need to experience in real life. But we are trying to produce more student-led films to recreate that energy you find being on site. One to one chats with the head should also really help you read your intuition. People still clam up when faced with a head in their study, so talking online with parents and pupils tends to be more informal. Everyone’s sat in familiar territory and the students are more relaxed and the conversation tends to be more authentic and equal.

Get under the school’s skin

One of the good things about 2020, is that is has pushed us to record everything and put it online. We have a broader global view. Parents from all over the world can now see and celebrate more with the children. That was something we perhaps took for granted before, but we are alive to the importance of that virtual experience. Parents also feel more engaged with school life.

Consider how the school has adapted at the start of Covid19. We are a Microsoft school, so the transition to remote learning was pretty seamless. We also offered daily wellbeing support throughout and continue to do so. We live in an uncertain, imperfect world. How schools deal with issues that arise is fundamental. Is the school teaching the resilience and self belief to navigate trickier times. Life is not perfect, but having the skills to cope with challenges is now essential for our young people.

Megaphone shouting out with speech bubbles banner for social networks in neon light style on dark background

Don’t be shy, speak up (or type away)

We’ve got a mediator. The questions come in and we’re on a Question Time-style panel. Your queries are posted in a chat box, so you don’t need to worry about speaking in front of a virtual room of strangers. If your question is missed, we have a record of it and will go back to parents via email with the answer. We’ve really got to grips with the filming side of things which makes Virtual Open Days easier. In fact, the Head’s office is now nicknamed Studio 1. But don’t ever leave an Open Day feeling you to didn’t get the opportunity or later thought of something important. You can always contact us afterwards.

Finally, be realistic

It is impossible to get the full school experience online. The vibrancy and the pupils’ input is missing. But you can be seen if you look hard enough. We have a ‘Bring It On’ pose that we bust out in photographs. Also, remember, once it is safe to do so, you can and should arrange to visit the school. Oh, and remember, communicating remotely is really normal for this generation. It’s only the grown ups who find it weird.

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