Choosing schools in a virtual world

Open Days are a key part of the admissions process for independent schools but the pandemic makes this impossible. Olivera Raraty of Malvern St James Girls’ School explores how the virtual admissions process has adapted in the pandemic.

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Choosing a school that is the right fit for your child is difficult at the best of times. As we all know, in a Covid world it is made even more challenging when you cannot visit the school for regular Open Days in the way you could in previous years. These events often gave a helpful first introduction to potential schools on the long list where you could tour, meet pupils and staff and hear the Head speak about their school. Most schools have replaced these group visits with virtual events instead and have tried to capture the essence of their schools through these online experiences. There are similarities in format in that you will still get to hear from the Headteacher, meet a range of pupils and senior staff and perhaps enjoy a virtual tour of the school. I would like to highlight that there are also some new elements which can provide genuine advantages to parents exploring the best options for their child.

One advantage is the opportunity to explore more schools from the comfort of your own home. Schools are putting on a greater number of virtual events so you can pick a time that is convenient for you and your family. Many schools, including mine, have noticed more parents coming to virtual open events. Parents leading busy lives can fit more in as they no longer need to commit a whole day or evening to an open event. This means families can spread the net wider and dip their toe in the water to narrow down the schools they are considering more easily than ever before.

It is also far easier to ask questions from pupils and a wider range of staff through live Q&A sessions that are often a feature of the virtual format. The use of the chat function during presentations by teachers and pupils means that questions can readily be answered by the panel. If you prefer, you can even choose to maintain anonymity, so you can ask anything that you might otherwise feel uncomfortable about asking in person! You also get to hear answers to questions that other families are asking, which many people find incredibly helpful.

My experience has been that we have seen greater participation from young people asking all manner of interesting questions via the chat function in an informal and friendly way. We have questions such as ‘what is the food like at break and lunch?’, ‘what sports can you try?’, ‘what weekend activities can you do if boarding?’, and ‘are you allowed to use devices in classrooms to support learning?’ At my school, as I imagine in all schools, this has generated lively online responses from current pupils giving you a feel for the style of education and the approach offered. We encourage lots of questions about the learning and boarding experiences, as visiting in person is currently not an option.

Of course, when you are thinking about choosing a school for your child, there will be many considerations to take into account – and dilemmas for some too – as you find the school that offers the best overall fit to make your child happy and fulfilled. Be reassured by the fact that Heads and teachers will have been through this process many times before – most not just on a professional level, but often on a personal one too. All good schools should welcome you to ask as many questions as you and your child need, to feel that you can make an informed decision, and the online format can help as there is really no limit. All questions are followed up and if you leave your name, Admissions staff will always get back to you if you require more details.

"Of course, when you are thinking about choosing a school for your child, there will be many considerations to take into account – and dilemmas for some too – as you find the school that offers the best overall fit to make your child happy and fulfilled."

Many schools, prior to lockdown restrictions, were still welcoming parents to follow up with a private visit. This offered a great opportunity to see the school ‘in session’. Seeing the school at first hand like this tells you much about the atmosphere of the school as well as giving you the opportunity to get into some of the nitty gritty of a school’s workings. You can speak at length to the Headteacher and a more personal experience will give you the best opportunity of all to find out what really makes a school tick. Sadly, this is not an option at the moment, but hopefully will resume once lockdown restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, following the school’s social media will provide you with many helpful insights.

All questions are welcomed by schools: no query is too small. You might like to find out about how a school helps older pupils to get ready for life beyond school. For example, ask about interview coaching, what help there is with internships and work placements, and mentoring by alumnae. At my school we are very proud of the university and careers programme offered by our Old Girls’ Association and the value it gives current cohorts of girls. Are lessons interesting and engaging? Do pupils feel well prepared for remote learning and how has the school invested in technology? What ‘step up’ is there in pupils’ school journey intellectually, physically and socially? Do they feel well-supported pastorally, particularly when they’re not feeling on top of the world? For boarding schools, what is boarding like and how are day pupils involved in the life of the full boarding community?

Finally, ask what differentiates a particular school from others. What do they do really well? How do individual students know that they are valued? What are the leadership opportunities (this applies as much to prep as to senior schools)? How are they adapting to face the changing demands of the workplace? Are they encouraging girls to consider rewarding careers in industry sectors where women are under-represented? What courses and universities are students going on to after Year 13? Do most get to where they want to be?

Of course, the school’s guidance will not stop there. They may offer your child the opportunity to do a virtual ‘taster’ day where they spend their day in lessons and activities, exactly as if they were at school. This should be the final piece in the jigsaw as to whether a particular school is ‘the one’. Do find out if the school will organise taster lessons online.

The aim of all good schools is to make the admissions process as painless as possible and using the virtual environment does still enable you to experience the essence of school life. Remember however you are not alone in this process! Each year we help all of our prospective parents and their children find their way and this pandemic year is no different. We’re here to help – and Covid has demonstrated the real strength of the independent sector in responding to the challenges of remote schooling and virtual tours in new and imaginative ways.

Olivera Raraty Photo

Olivera Raraty is Headmistress of Malvern St James Girls' School.

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