“Shall we say goodbye to Mum and Dad here, and go and wash our hands?”
The four-year-old looks up, hugs a leg for a second longer, and then, not without a little hesitation, takes me by the hand and walks through the gate. A wave goodbye and they are in – first day of school has begun.
I walk back to the gate, beaming through my condensation-filled visor, attempting to reassure her parents, without any physical contact, just how brilliant it was that their child felt confident coming in, that they will have a lovely day, and that we look forward to seeing them at 3.30pm.
Coronavirus: A child's first day in school
Covid has taken many things away from us. One of those is the experience for parents of being able to walk into the classroom with their child on their first day, to find their child’s name on a peg together, to settle them on the carpet, smile and say hello to some equally emotional parents doing the same, to watch the first register being taken.
And then, once they have waved goodbye, we are no longer able to offer them a much-appreciated cup of tea, served up by the PTSA, to provide a bit of moral support and a friendly face to say hello to. This should be how they begin the relationships with the adults they will see in the playground, at nativities and at parties over the next seven years.
I hope that they feel that we have done the best we can in the circumstances – individual play sessions in the classroom, a plethora of videos of me, my deputy, the class teacher and teaching assistant doing various tours of the building, answering questions. And there are more virtual meetings to come in the following weeks.
But I understand that it is not the same as being there. Because we humans are sensory beings. We take in information from our surroundings, and process our emotions accordingly. It can give us a feeling of contentment or concern.
Parent support in Reception
Transition into Reception class in a school is such an important point. In my experience, it is more critical for the parents than the children.
Many of us hold on to our own experiences of school – some positive, others not so – and all of us want the best for our children.
In Reception class, we begin to help our parents to feel confident in us as a school, to begin to develop a relationship of trust and respect. For you are leaving your child here, with us, for seven hours a day, five days a week. A settled start with parents, where good relationships are fostered, pays dividends for child, family and school, and in later years beyond primary school.
For the past five years, I have led tours for prospective parents every Wednesday morning throughout the months from October to December. It’s a considerable amount of time, but it’s never been something I’ve wanted anyone else to do, apart from my deputy.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I am really proud of our school, and I love that once a week I get to remind myself why, and explain to others what we are about. Plus, I’ll always recall the tour my sister went on, at a potential school, which was led by a pupil who spent 10 minutes showing a bewildered group of adults the exact location of the bins in the playground.
Helping families to make their choices
Secondly, without being crass, without the right numbers of pupils on roll, all schools can face serious financial uncertainty. This means that they are unable to provide the extras that make parents choose that school in the first place.
Since parents have been able to make choices about the schools they send their children to, it essentially means that schools are just as invested in attracting parents to them as parents are about choosing a school.
I am fortunate that, as a school, we have a full roll and waiting lists for each class, in an area where we get high mobility. But I am not complacent about the importance these tours have in helping parents to make their choice.
As humans, we absorb information through our senses and use that information to make decisions. While I know that Oftsed says parents like its reports, I really don’t think reading one would give you the same knowledge of a school that walking through that school and reading the atmosphere for yourself would.
When I visit other schools, I am always listening into and observing relationships between adults and between children – I’ve learned not just to be taken in by pristine displays.
We’ve been debating if and how we can conduct tours, given the current Covid restrictions in place. Parents are likely to face variety in how schools approach this, depending on their resources and also the layout of their buildings.
I had wondered whether I could afford a professionally made video – but then I remembered how much Covid is going to cost us this year, and quickly came to the conclusion that we couldn’t.
I guess it will be another selfie-stick job, edited in iMovies. I’m considering asking for some reviews from parents and children to share on the website, too.
One thought is to run some tours at the end of the school day, with limited ticketed entry. This way, parents could see the building, meet me and have time to ask questions – I find that I can’t truly explain how we live our values without explaining the detail of the day in the actual building. This way, parents can at least imagine the working day.
But I question the authenticity of it all – without children being present, it is not a school. It’s not going to be the same. But, then, what is any more?
Ruth Luzmore is headteacher at St Mary Magdalene Academy in North London. She tweets @RLuzmore