We are all well aware of the challenges presented to the teaching and support staff of every school in the land as a result of the ongoing health crisis. It has been a year unlike any other in the world of education… and beyond. However, not so much has been said about the challenges facing the admissions teams at independent schools. How can a school win the trust and confidence of parents and attract the next generation of pupils when there are so many restrictions and constraints placed on external visitors and campus tours?
Of course the top priority has to be the care and wellbeing of current pupils and staff, so no school will want to sail any closer to the line of risk than they absolutely have to. Then there’s the firm guidance from most local education authorities to avoid having any people visiting schools. Such important considerations have presented quite a conundrum for all independent schools that are normally only too pleased to welcome prospective parents to offer tours of their facilities, and discuss their academic ethos and pastoral support. Indeed, an effective, dynamic and responsive approach to admissions is the lifeblood for any independent school.
For those of us in the admissions team here at Bryanston, it was a real shock to the system. The school has always taken great pride from its personalised approach to visits from parents and prospective pupils – with current sixth form pupils delivering a bespoke tour and providing an insightful and unsupervised view of everyday life at the school as part of the visit.
Such attention to the needs of individual parents and their children is wholly in keeping with the school’s unwavering commitment to provide a community and learning environment that is tailored to optimise the personal and academic development of each individual pupil. But, how on earth could we continue with such an approach when our comfort zone was, in effect and for the foreseeable future, firmly confined to quarantine?
We decided at an early stage to adhere fully to the advice from Dorset County Council and ceased all on-site visits. The risks were too great and there seemed to be little value in conducting outdoor tours with no opportunity for parents to really see the teaching facilities, boarding houses and community resources. This decisive action focused our mind on the task at hand and ensured there was no risk of a rather bland or unconvincing compromise. It was a brave move, though, as we had an increasing backlog of requests from parents for guided tours and meetings with staff.
An effective, dynamic and responsive approach to admissions is the lifeblood for any independent school
The success of our guided learning programme, introduced during the first national lockdown, gave us the confidence that technology might help us rise to the new admissions challenge. After detailed discussions with James Henshaw, our technical and production manager, we came up with an innovative solution for delivering both group and individual visits in a virtual format that not only captured the personality of the school but also conveyed the same personal touch and insight achieved in pre-pandemic visits.
The individual visits for parents already relatively familiar with the school were pretty straightforward to resolve. Here, my colleague Sarah Spencer and I simply act as hosts of a scheduled Zoom call, where we provide a general overview and introduce the parents to two or three members of staff to reflect any particular areas of interest.
It was quite another matter, however, to deliver the true ‘feel’ of Bryanston for parents and potential pupils who are looking to dip their toes in the water and are unfamiliar with the school’s campus, ethos and community spirit. This would normally be achieved through a group visit for 10-12 parents each time.
We opted to take the lead from the success of our pupil-hosted tours and, after discussion with sixth form pupils, we decided to replicate the approach in a special video production. Teagan Galloway, the current head girl, and Cameron Robertson, a previous head boy and resident, agreed to act as host presenters of the video as they took a tour around all areas of the school – from the sports, arts and equestrian centres to the Coade Hall theatre and recording studios, as well as social areas such as the school shop and café.
Significantly, their commentary was completely unscripted and the video’s natural format ensured the emphasis remained on Teagan and Cameron’s own personal experiences, perspectives and thoughts. Of course, the current restrictions prevented any filming of live events but feature footage from recent theatre productions, orchestral performances and sporting events was also included in the 24-minute finished production.
That’s not all, though. We wanted to follow through the principle of pupil engagement to add further authenticity to the video. Consequently, all filming and post-production was undertaken by pupils who are currently studying IB film or are involved in film production as part of their extra-curricular activities.
The result exceeded our expectations by some distance – Cameron, Teagan and the film crew have really encapsulated the character and spirit of the school, brought everything to life and delivered a very rich and persuasive message. However, we were even more delighted with the overwhelming feedback from parents – “brilliantly executed”, “thoroughly enjoyed such a personal introduction to the school”, “really does say a lot about the school” are just a few of a long list of very positive comments we’ve received.
The new film is sent out to parents who have made initial enquiries about the school and in advance of the individual Zoom meetings where we also include additional short videos on specific areas of interest. It is also played within the new online group visits.
Once again, I act as the ‘chat show’ host from Jeffreys – the school’s main reception – where we have cameras and a large TV screen set up. We have been hosting up to 30 parents at a time in these virtual two-hour meetings – more than double the number attending earlier group visits at the school. This has enabled us to clear much of the backlog of visit requests without compromising our objective to deliver a distinctly personal welcome.
After explaining the format of the ‘visit’, the film is shown to parents and then the guests are split into two groups to meet and discuss pastoral topics with either a boys’ housemaster or a girls’ housemistress. They then return to me and a panel of senior staff, and are invited to ask any questions of interest regarding the school’s academic rigour and support for pupils. This provides all parents with a good insight into all aspects of the school, with everyone receiving a consistent message.
Our last group visit included parents from no less than 10 different countries from right across Europe as well as India, the Middle East, the Far East and USA. This overcomes the need for parents to make complex, repeated and costly travel arrangements for preliminary visits to the various schools under consideration, as each school hosts such group events at different times.
We have held six group visits during the autumn term and four are already planned for the spring term. Given the success and popularity of the video, we will be producing similar films each year once the current health crisis is consigned to the history books as it clearly provides parents with an early understanding of the school’s unique qualities and approach before they pay us a physical visit.
Of course, nothing can ever replace the depth of understanding that comes from an in-person visit to a school and face-to-face meetings with staff. Such visits will always be the most important element of the admissions process for parents – and so they should be. However, there is clearly a lot to be gained by using a blend of online interaction and physical visits as parents weigh up the options and select the best school for their child/children.
We’ve always considered our admissions approach to be distinctive and I believe we’ve now added another invaluable layer to our presentation that is not only full of personality and extremely informative but is also very convenient for parents wherever they may live.
Main image: (L to R) Bryanston School’s Sarah Spencer, admissions assistant; Anne Megdiche, director of admissions; and James Henshaw, technical and production manager