It is critical to get a sense of people and place

Jo Sale, Vice Principal, Impington International College

The bright lights of the open evening season will soon be upon us and, like most other factors recently in our day to day lives, it is going to be a completely different experience for all of us! At Impington International College, open evening season is always our favourite time of year because we get to see our wonderful students take centre stage, host between 400 – 500 people, and show them what we really have to offer. There is usually such a buzz around our College grounds, it is so exciting!

There are many benefits to holding open evenings and, this year, while we are unable to host these events in quite the same way on site, we have prepared a programme of both face to face and virtual events to give parents and students the crucial sense of ‘people and place’ that they usually benefit from at face to face events. At Impington, we always say it is all about the people -overcoming the challenges that we have been presented with over the last six months has been no mean feat, but we tried our best to convey this virtually in our summer welcome events.

Throughout these virtual summer events, we covered a whole variety of topics, courses and staff introductions. Students who were new to the school were able to meet their tutors and teachers in live Zoom sessions, get to know their fellow students via the virtual “coffee shop”, and go on a guided tour of the College. The tutor meetings for our new applicants were very popular – it is just so important for students in this state of heightened anxiety to have the opportunity to have 1-2-1 contact time and feel able to say “I am scared” or ask questions that they might not want to in front of their peers.

Our best advocates, our students, host around 50 – 70% of our open evenings and admissions events, and this won’t change for our events this year – although they will be on a smaller, more intimate scale and will need pre-booking. Many might ask why but, at Impington, we have absolute faith in our students; they say incredible things about the College, and their lived experience is important. What could be more authentic? I think that this also showcases our individual approach to each student’s education with us, which is something that parents should look out for when “doing the rounds” of the open events – be they virtual or face to face.

Something else that parents need to consider, is that we are now dealing with young people who are possibly more insecure and worried about the world than they were before the start of the pandemic. So, when attending any open events, it is as important to think about questions that focus on pastoral care, as it is on results and destinations. It is all very well and good if a college or sixth form’s grades are amazing, but are they providing students with the right support they need in order to achieve their dreams or are they just focused on teaching to test? Focusing on outcomes only can have a devastating effect on some students’ wellbeing.

When hosting our virtual events in the summer, it was interesting to note that the questions we were asked by parents and students were different to those we hear at face to face events. Usually, we would get a much broader span of questions, whereas in the virtual events, they were almost all focused-on subject choices, for example: “I want to be an accountant, what do I study?”. The generic nature of the questions might be down to people being unfamiliar with the virtual format.  So, for this year’s virtual or face to face open events, I would urge all parents and students to really think about what information they want to gather; what is more difficult to glean without visiting the school site and meeting staff and students in person? In order to encourage discussion at our virtual events, our current sixth form students used the chat facility on Microsoft Teams and prompted questions of our attendees.

Regardless of the format, it is as important as ever for parents to participate in school open events this year. My main piece of advice is to approach virtual events as though they are face to face events. Of course, one of the benefits of a virtual event is that you can watch the recorded sessions on-demand, but this is no substitute for attending the live event because you’ll be relying on other people to ask the questions that you want answered. It is also great for parents to hear that others have the very same concerns; in this “new normal” we are all in the same boat.

Looking to the future, our admissions and induction process will be adapted to be a blend, where necessary and include virtual elements with face to face opportunities throughout the year – this of course is a real benefit for our international cohorts! Another benefit is that our face to face events will be really special – tailored to individuals, bookable, and safe.