Although an open day and an individual visit have some very different aspects, the key to the success of either is in the preparation.
An open day is an excellent way to showcase the school and whet a parent’s appetite in an unpressured, group environment. It will often, but not always, be the visitor’s first experience of the school and therefore serves to introduce the school, its grounds, its staff and its processes to them. First impressions really do count! The experience needs to be smooth and easy right from the start – be that the reply to an invitation to attend or to finding an available parking space and knowing where reception is. This means that preparation for these key recruitment days starts months before the date itself.
Don’t forgot, many of the visitors are busy parents – so an email reminder of when to arrive and the key points of the day would be well received about a week before (but don’t be too prolific with your mailings; inboxes filled to capacity may well detract from your offering!). Similarly, many of the staff around school will be busy with their day-to-day routines, so don’t forget to remind everyone, even those not directly involved; the day will work better if everybody feels included.
On the day, it is important that the school is looking at its best; the grounds are tidy, displays around the corridors and classrooms are interesting and give a sense of what the pupils get up to. Parents want to know what their children would do at the school and want to feel it is going to make a difference for their son or daughter. Having relevant members of staff, both academic and support, on hand to talk to parents at some point during the day, preferably after the tour, will give visitors the opportunity to ask questions that either they have prepared previously or that have come up during the visit. Ensuring that current pupils feature somewhere in the visit is also vital – it might be that they meet and greet the visitors on arrival, guide them around a part of the school or chat with them over coffee. Your pupils are your greatest asset and giving them the chance to showcase the school is also good for building their presentation and communication skills.
If food is a part of the day, whether it’s coffee or tea or even a buffet lunch, ensure it gives your catering team a chance to show off their skills. However, don’t let them go too wild! The food needs to be easy to eat in the context (finger size sandwiches or non-crumbly cakes, for example, so no-one is struggling to balance their food with their conversation).
An open day is a lot of work and co-ordination, but it only happens two or three times a year, so go for it (and don’t forget to thank all the teams involved afterwards – you’ll need them on board again next time!).
Individual visits to the school happen throughout the year and are often a follow up to an open day (although they may equally be a first visit – so check). They will have chosen an individual visit for a reason, so take the time to ensure it is personal. Always look back to see what contact the visitor has made with the school before – when they last visited, what they are specifically interested in and, of course, if they are friends with or related to any current or past pupils. This will ensure you make them feel known, valued and welcomed. Whatever you do, don’t give them the same tour that they had a month ago at open day! If you can, spend extra time in the subject area that they are interested in, select a tour guide with the similar qualities and hobbies, include a talk with relevant members of staff or even let them catch up with current pupils who are friends.
A big deal can be made of alumni – find any long serving members of staff who may remember them or even show them their old form room or dorm. If they feel like they are back at home, their children will notice and it will warm up the visit no end! Making time for a chat with the Head or another member of the senior management team will also make the visitors feel special and that their child, their visit and their questions are important.
A successful visit ends with your visitor leaving feeling as if their questions have been answered (and that they haven’t been rushed in any way). It also means that the team in school are already getting to know your visitor well and so it will be an easy transition for them into the school community; time well invested.
Rebecca Tear is headmistress of Badminton School in Bristol.