This week families all over the country received secondary school offers – and what a strange offer day it was, with many children finding out they may be going to a school they have never had the chance to visit in person.
Thanks to COVID-19, traditional open days had to be thrown by the wayside in favour of virtual substitutes. As a parent who did all the secondary school visits with my oldest child a few years ago, I know how exhausting that process can be, especially when trying to schedule the visits all in around work. In a way, I secretly kind of liked not having to juggle that same process this year for my youngest.
But the downside, and it is a big one, is not being able to get a real ‘feel’ for the school and a genuine sense of what the leaders and teachers are like. That was very much how my oldest ended up in her school – it was an instant, lightbulb moment during an open morning when I knew it perfectly fit her and she would thrive, and she absolutely has.
There has been a lot more trepidation undertaking the same process for my son this year. My daughter is in a girls’ school, so that was not an option. We had also moved recently, to an area with schools I was not familiar with and I did not have any friends whose children attended them.
Open mornings were swapped for Saturday morning group zooms with headteachers and YouTube video tours. Personally, as a parent I loved the switch to remote parent teacher conferences this year (and hope that continues), but I really missed live open days and seeing the schools in action. The virtual option did not give me a glimpse of the behaviour, a real sense of the headteacher, an in-person feel for the quality of pastoral support and the chance to imagine my son in the different learning environments.
Whilst it has been difficult from the parent angle, it has also been challenging from the school angle. Virtual open mornings were certainly not ideal for schools either, and I don’t think I attended a single virtual open morning that was not plagued by some sort of technical glitch during which parents sympathised with the cringing headteacher trying to sort it out.
Leaders also missed out because open mornings are their chance to attract new pupils by sharing all the things they love about their school, everything they are proud of, all the things they’ve worked so hard for that are truly making a difference and whatever plans they are really excited about.
Headteachers may not have had a chance to showcase their school outside of a laptop this year, but in September they will be welcoming their newest cohort of pupils, live and in-person. They will be building their communities with renewed vigour on the back of the pandemic and connecting with a whole new group of wide-eyed children, and their parents and carers who, even if they didn’t get to see the school in person in advance, are just so grateful for all the work both their former and new schools did to get their children there.
I think my son will still be going to the school that wins on gut instinct about what will fit him, but I do wish I could have had the chance to see all the schools properly as I had for my daughter, to then make what feels like a fully-informed choice. I know many parents will be feeling the same this year, whether for secondary places, primary or whatever stage their child’s next step is.
Clear, engaging comms for parents and carers new to the school, and opportunities to invite them into the school (when safe to do so), will be more important than ever in September, to help ease any lingering anxieties from not being able to visit in person, and to help build confidence in the care given to pupils as individuals.
The big thing for parents to remember though, is kids tend to adapt to these things much better than we do. My son will no doubt be happy and enjoy years 7+ because his new school will do a brilliant job welcoming him because that’s what schools do. And I will be a complete mess wherever he goes in September because my baby is going off to secondary school. That would have been the case even if the pandemic had never happened