Parents are suffering “sleepless nights” trying to choose secondary schools for their children without setting foot in buildings or meeting teachers face to face.
Following new government guidance that now recommends schools consider alternatives to face-to-face open events, many schools are only offering online talks and virtual school tours to parents, who must get their school place applications in by the end of this month.
In a bid to woo parents and simultaneously outshine other local schools, some state schools have spent more than £5,000 on professionally made promotional videos this term. These often include drone footage of their grounds and story-boarded, scripted interactions between pupils. Others, with smaller budgets, are relying on films made by students and a pre-recorded presentation from the headteacher. But some heads are still allowing parents to tour the school building – usually when it is empty – in small, socially distanced groups, gaining an edge over the local competition. The new government guidance, issued to the National Association of Head Teachers after heads begged for clarity, does allow this, subject to “risk assessments” and “control measures” being put in place.
“Schools are not on an even playing field any more – they’re all doing something different,” said Rachael Dines, whose 11-year-old son Kaden will start secondary school next year. He is trying to decide between four state schools near their home town of Worthing, West Sussex. So far they have only been allowed to visit one school in person, on a 45-minute “express”, masked tour. “We were in very small groups of six and there were no students present.” She struggles to compare this experience with the online tours and promotional videos put forward by other schools on her shortlist.
“Videos can be edited: if there was something they didn’t want to show us, they wouldn’t put that in the video.”
Ideally, she wants her son, who loves art, to be able to see the artwork produced by students at each school and imagine himself as a new starter inside the school building. Having been on one tour, she says, “I think all schools could have managed a tour of some kind, with careful restrictions in place.”
In Bexley, south-east London, Michelle Jackson is having sleepless nights trying to weigh up the pros and cons of nine state secondary schools for her 10-year-old daughter Annalie solely using online films and web talks. “Schools are doing their best – and it’s a really difficult time for them,” she says. “But as lovely as the videos are, it’s not the same as walking around a school. You can’t get a feel for it. You can’t get a sense of what the children and the building are like.”
While some videos are “snazzy”, “professional” and have “very nicely edited footage”, others look as if they were shot on a mobile phone. “I’m more interested in what they’re saying. But if it does look more polished, I suppose it does give a better impression of the school.” At MCN Productions, which makes promotional videos for state schools, “demand has gone through the roof” since the end of last term.
“We must have done 15 schools since then,” said director Mike Carter, adding that schools typically spend up to £5,000 or “even more” to get a high-quality “open day” video. “Schools [are] quite prepared to spend that amount if they feel they’re getting what they need.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Schools should consider how best to run events, such as parents’ evenings and open days, based on their own risk assessment and the system of controls they have in place. Schools have the flexibility to offer alternative options to face-to-face meetings, such as virtual events.”