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Talk Education’s guide to virtual open days: how they work, what you see – and how to make the most of them

By Talk Education
08 October 2020

It’s open-day season: the time when schools would normally be throwing open their doors to prospective parents, giving us a chance to hear the head, see (and, in some cases, smell) the dorms, meet carefully selected pupils and generally get a sense of whether it might suit our children – and vice versa.

We’ve always had mixed feelings about their usefulness. One prep head described open days at a certain senior school as being ‘like a glorious great drinks party’. A mother we spoke to turned up in her jeans to one open day only to find a helicopter parked on the school lawn and other mothers wearing hats. (She dressed up for the next one, and found everyone in waxed jackets and muddy trainers.)

But for now, none of that matters (what a relief). With social-distancing rules in place for the foreseeable future, and a government ban slapped on gatherings of more than six people, schools are having to be inventive and come up with new ways of showing their strengths to prospective parents. Open days have gone virtual.

No bones about it: virtual open days are nothing like the real thing. You can’t stroke the walls of the all-singing, all-dancing new science centre; you can’t sniff out the boarding houses; you can’t try the food (one mother told us her son was sold on Shrewsbury by the lemon posset he was given for lunch); and you can’t shake hands with the matron you’ll be handing your child over to. You can only see what the school wants to show you.

That said, there are huge benefits. You might have a shortlist of 15 schools, but do you really have the time to travel to every single one? Why not use this as an opportunity to ‘visit’ a wild card you may not otherwise have considered? Overseas parents are reaping the benefits – and saving on the air fares too. ‘By switching to virtual open days, more international parents are able to get a taste of life at Gordonstoun without having to travel here,’ says Lisa Kerr, principal of Gordonstoun, up in the wilds of Scotland. 

You can certainly leave that hat in its box too – virtual open days allow parents to snoop around a school without having to worry about being assessed themselves. When you’re not busy comparing your outfit to everyone else’s, you’ll probably find yourself paying a lot more attention to the head’s spiel about A-level results.

You might actually get a more intimate audience with the people who matter too. In ordinary times, you’re up against the 1,000 or so other parents squeezed into the chapel with you, each one jostling to get their burning question answered. But now everyone gets the chance to submit their question either in advance or over the chat function on a livestream. One mother recently attended one of Radley’s virtual events for prospective parents: her son was delighted to have his question answered during a live Q&A with head John Moule. Most children find it far easier to put themselves out there in a non-intimidating, virtual setting.

It’s a joy to see how creatively schools are rising to this challenge. Many have commissioned Oscar-worthy films or state-of-the-art drone footage to transport parents into every nook and cranny of their campus. Glenalmond has taken things a step further and come up with a novel, Covid-safe alternative to Zoom visits: safari-style tours. Parents stay in their cars and tune into live commentary on their mobile phones while driving around the school’s gloriously rural 300-acre Perthshire estate. It’s a brilliant opportunity to get a sense of the sheer scale of the grounds – and check out the seriously impressive quads and smart Victorian buildings too.

Wellington is holding daily live Q&A sessions with its director of admissions. Papplewick is offering parents a 10-minute virtual Skype chat with head Tom Bunbury, before being passed over to two boys to take them on a live iPad tour of the school – snake lab included. This means parents still get that all-important opportunity to ask their most pertinent questions to the pupils themselves. Other schools are offering one-on-one tours and meetings with the head.

So yes, they are useful – but how to make the most of them? Here are our tips:

1. Do your research. Spend time browsing schools’ websites, speaking to other parents and your child’s prep school. Come up with some questions for the head/admissions team/pupils so you’re armed when it comes to the day.

2. Use our site! There’s never been a better time to use our guide and advisory service – come to Talk Education for the inside track. And make sure you watch our ‘10 Questions’ videos to see the heads in ‘informal’ mode.

3. Look beyond the gloss. What is the school not showing you? Can you arrange a separate tour of a boarding house? What about the poky basement art room no one’s mentioned?

4. Arrange to visit in person before you make your decision. Virtual visits are all very well, but nothing beats a face-to-face conversation with the people who are going to play a key part in your child’s education – even if you are peering out from behind a mask and soused in sanitiser like a pickled herring.

5. Always write a thank-you letter. Yes, that still applies now, even if you haven’t visited in person. It doesn’t hurt – and it will get your name firmly on the school’s radar while giving you the opportunity to tell them what you found useful.