Rethinking the school gate

The drastic changes needed for socially-distanced pick up and drop off has had unintended positive consequences, explains Susan McLean of Kitebrook Preparatory School. Is it time to rethink the school gate permanently?

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It is the same for so many schools across the country. Morning drop off: children clinging to their parents with tears in their eyes whilst cars vie for a place to park. Afternoon pick up: parents chatting at the school gates, waiting for their child to emerge, and with cars jammed into the car park. But what if it was different?

The impact of COVID-19 has been felt in all areas of school life, but none more than the transformation of school gate etiquette. This time, for the better. The start of the overhaul at my own school was born out of necessity. We had to rapidly devise a solution that ensured our children and families were still distancing during the morning drop off and afternoon collection. Designated arrival and departure spots, more akin to ordering fast food in a drive-through restaurant, has transformed any car park issues we may have thought we had.

More importantly, I have watched the children’s confidence soar. This got me thinking. Are we doing our children a disservice by allowing parents to walk them up to the school gates? It is what we have always done – the ‘norm’. But while we must ensure a balance between fostering a child’s growth in independence and allowing the parents to feel part of school life, we have certainly been able to capitalise on the need for social distancing as a way to develop our pupils’ autonomy. In amazement, I have seen all of our children bound out of their car, bags in hand, and set off with purpose to their classroom.

Little ones, who previously, sometimes months into a term, would still get upset at leaving their parents, now grinning as they run up to their teacher, ready to start their morning with such positivity. We have eradicated the shy child who clings to Mummy and, instead, created organised, self-sufficient individuals. And that is the real benefit. They are beginning their day, not bereft, but happy, smiling, and enthusiastic. Their jubilant energy positively radiates as they set about to learn, ensuring they are at their most productive. That positivity then spreads into the school’s atmosphere, enhancing all temperaments, and ultimately, our well-being.

Sometimes the changes that we are forced into are the ones we embrace the most. Often an obvious solution we were previously oblivious to, then emerges. This has further cemented a philosophy I have spent years trying to adhere to – when a problem looks impossible, search for a creative solution. As teachers, we spend our time instilling resilience in our children. Problem-solving is a huge part of this essential quality.

But how are our parents feeling about this shift? The inclusive, family-orientated ethos of my school naturally extends to our parents, and while the children are always at the centre of our focus, it is imperative parents are happy too. The change hasn’t been insignificant. Once parents were allowed to mingle and chat, arranging meet ups and social gatherings with their children’s friends. Now, each parent drives up through the gates with their surname clearly displayed on their passenger side visor, printed on a colour coded placard to match their child’s alphabetically allocated ‘dispatch’ group. Three numbered stations with teacher attendees await as they navigate into their appointed slot.

"But going back to ensuring parent inclusivity, now, more than ever, it is at the forefront of my mind that a change such as this doesn’t inadvertently see parents feel they are at a disconnect... What we do have to seriously consider – and this is a debate for all schools to explore – is whether pick up and drop off is the appropriate time to do this."

In the background, the children are waiting in their bubbles, ready to be called. An enthusiastic member of staff stays on a mic throughout the process, calling out surnames as their parents roll up. (During any lulls you can also hear some questionable singing—which of course, the children love.) Children are safely placed in the car, assisted by the teacher, and off they go. The parents don’t have the need to emerge from their vehicles and the system continues systematically and smoothly until all the pupils have left for the day. The whole pick up only takes about 20 minutes. The morning is even calmer as drop offs are staggered. It is truly revolutionary.

But what is the feedback? ‘Amazing’, I heard one parent gush. ‘It’s like a military operation and I’ve never had to wait more than a couple of minutes.’ Another quipped it was ‘stress-free’. But going back to ensuring parent inclusivity, now, more than ever, it is at the forefront of my mind that a change such as this doesn’t inadvertently see parents feel they are at a disconnect. We are so proud of what we do – and all the children’s achievements – and we want them to be part of that, offering continuation as an integral member of the school community. What we do have to seriously consider – and this is a debate for all schools to explore – is whether pick up and drop off is the appropriate time to do this.

Like all good schools, we love welcoming our parents into school, but ideally when it is best for everyone: child, parent and staff. This needs to be an optimum time that won’t detract from a child’s blossoming independence. While the car parking system was perfect for what we needed at the time, could we now strive for even better? As we begin a new school term, welcoming back all children full-time while ensuring we effectively implement the ever-changing guidelines, the way our school is run will certainly not return to the ‘normal’ that we once knew, prior to lockdown.

We need to incorporate what we have learnt, while being aware that continual tweaking is essential, especially as we adapt to an ever-changing environment. Ingrained in teaching professionals is the affirmation that learning never stops. When it comes to our evolution in school gate etiquette, however, we have learnt enough to know that this might just be something that we keep as our ‘new normal’.

Listen to an interview with Susan McLean

You can listen to an interview with Susan McLean discussing the themes of this article in the second episode of Attain's new podcast, Fresh Thinking.

Susan McLean Photo

Susan McLean is Headmistress of Kitebrook Preparatory School, Gloucestershire.

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