Making Your School Environment More Accessible, Open and Welcoming - A Reflection by Andrew Blench

I left my role as School Business Manager in a High School to set up as a School Business Manager (SBM) Consultant and Coach in 2016. Since then, I have visited lots of schools across the country for my work.  

I had always thought most schools were friendly, open and welcoming places until I started my current role. But as an outsider, I’ve found some schools can be unwelcoming and sometimes difficult to engage with! This has made me reflect upon what it must be like for those engaging with the schools I regularly visit. I am only visiting for a short period as a consultant, but how do people such as parents, contractors, inspectors experience the school? 

In this article I will share some of my observations and tips for making your school more accessible, open and welcoming. 

Why is making your school more accessible, open and welcoming important? 

There are a variety of definitions in the dictionary of the word welcome, but they could be summed up as follows. ‘To receive, with pleasure and positivity a person item or thought’. The definitions also draw on the fact that this is an action and we show this ‘welcome’ by saying or doing something to express this. Such as ‘welcome stranger! Long-time no see!’ 

  • When we are welcoming of our key stakeholders this encourages further contact and repeat engagement with our school 

  • It is part of the Ofsted Inspection Framework judgement regarding leadership and management ‘whether leaders seek to engage parents and their community thoughtfully and positively in a way that supports pupils’ education’ Ofsted Inspection Framework 2022 School inspection handbook - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) 

  • Your schools’ results on Parent View will form part of the next Ofsted Inspection. One of the 12 questions parents/carers are asked when completing Parent View is ‘The school responds well to any concerns I raise’. Where schools are difficult to access or engage with it is likely that the score will be low in this area. See here  

  • Research has established the link between schools being welcoming and engaging to academic progress for children - ‘Reported outcomes of increased parental engagement include improved academic performance; improved relationships between parents, teachers and schools; and increased parental involvement in schools’ Aston, H. and Grayson, H. (2013). Teacher Guide: Rapid Review of Parental Engagement and Narrowing the Gap in Attainment for Disadvantaged Children. Slough and Oxford: NFER and Oxford University Press 

Perception versus reality 

I imagine that if asked, the majority of your school staff would say you are a friendly place and easy to engage with! But of course, we are asking the wrong people! I would suggest that schools conduct a stakeholder communications survey bi-annually, for parents, governors, contractors, and service providers. Once the results are received and analysed, an action plan can be formed, shared with the survey respondents, and implement 

Physical access 

Whilst I understand that to safeguard our young people our school sites can’t be so accessible that anyone could walk in that doesn’t mean we have to turn them into prisons!! I have visited many schools for the first time and looked at them from the main road and been completely perplexed as to how to access the site. Are there clear external signs in your grounds which show visitors how to park their car and how to access reception? Use the principle of a bread crumb trail leading from the point of external access to the reception door. Some schools use painted footsteps on the ground leading up to the reception door.  

If you have gated access operated electronically from reception with an intercom, then how long is reasonable for a visitor to wait for a response after pressing the button? Most people are aware that schools are busy and they will not always get a response straight away. But I have previously had to wait 10 minutes for a response which doesn’t feel very welcoming. If you have an electronic access system are there any written instructions next to it saying how to use it?  

Do you tell your visitors in advance about parking arrangements and access to site? I recently went to visit a school, at their invitation, which was a large primary school (600+ pupils) with only 10 visitor parking spaces. These were accessed from a long single track fenced in drive. This drive was used by delivery vehicles as well. All 10 spaces were in use. It would have been helpful for me to know this beforehand! 

Community lettings 

When reviewing access to your site and how welcoming or otherwise this is, think of the out of hours experience. Especially when members of the community are accessing your school for community lettings. It’s likely to be dark, so is the lighting working and in the right place? The signage we need for daytime access will be different from out of hours. Does your signage and website make this clear? 

By opening your site to the community, you are saying to them loud and clear ‘this is your school’! A positive experience can improve participants’ perception of your school which in turn can impact positively on pupil recruitment and raised profile in the community. 

The reception experience 

Once you have cracked the code and reached reception, how welcoming is this experience? The basics are of course a hopefully friendly ‘good morning how may I help you’? I have visited some schools where I have stood in reception and been ignored by office staff.  

I have also experienced a wide range of signing in processes which have ranged from the light touch to a version of the MI5 job application process.  

The light touch being – no signing in or checking of identity, but simply being taken through to see the person I have an appointment with.  

At the other extreme I have been asked for sight of my DBS disclosure, sight of a passport or driving licence, a signature on an A4 sized paper to say that I have read and understood the schools safeguarding routines and a photograph on the signing in machine. 

I always politely comply with these routines and understand the need to safeguard our young people, but I do wonder about the appropriateness of them. If I am only going to be in the school for one hour and will always be with the Head teacher for that hour, do you need to see my DBS? I also wonder about the volume of admin work this generates.  

Can I encourage schools to look at their reception check in experience and ask does it protect everyone? Is it proportionate to the risk level? Is it welcoming and accessible? 

A lot of schools have installed electronic signing in systems which take a black and white picture of the visitor for printing on the visitor badge. These are great and bring all sorts of benefits. The only gripe I have is that they are nearly always installed at a height suitable for a child or small adult. When it comes to taking a photo, I often have to bend down! 

Communication Channels 

Most organisations, to a degree, can be guilty of something called ‘incongruent communications. This is where our stated message is contradicted on many levels including verbal and non-verbal. For example, if we encourage people to call into reception, drop us an email or phone in but then make this (either intentionally or unintentionally) a difficult experience we are being incongruent. The danger is that the message you are giving e.g. ‘stay in touch’ is contradicted by the experience which seems to say, ‘we don’t want to hear from you’. So to avoid this I would offer the following tips: - 

  • Be clear on which channels you are going to use and for which types of communications. Some messages are suited to social media, others need an email or even a printed letter to be effective. See – marketing and communication channels grid 

  • Resource the channels effectively – manage people’s expectations by communicating what school reception opening hours are (most schools don’t display this information on letters or their website) and in what time frame they can expect an answer to an email. 

  • If you operate community lettings outside of normal schools hours, let people know how and who they should contact if they need to make a booking or contact someone in an emergency booking. 

  • Let people know when you will be unresponsive e.g. school holidays dates and how this will affect any response times. This can be added to the switchboard messaging and in email automated responses.  

  • If you use an Automated Caller Distribution (ACD) system on your switchboard don’t use more than 3 options. I have contacted some schools where there are 8 options. By the time I have listened to them all I have forgotten what they are. Take a survey of what people are phoning you about using a simple 5 bar gate record over a term or half term. Then make the top 3 your ACD options. 

  • If you are not encouraging people to use staff individual work email addresses, put a system in place to track responses to emails. A common complaint is the lack of response to emails sent to an info@ or enquiries@ email address. This is often because the original email enquiry has been forwarded to a member of staff for response. How do you know that the response has been sent? If you have a target response time, how do you track that this is being met? 

And finally... 

‘To understand the man, you must first walk a mile in his moccasins’ North American Indian Proverb. 

If we want to create welcoming school environments which encourage engagement with and from our key stakeholders, we need to step out of our own comfort zones and see things the way they see and experience them.  

 

This blog article was written by guest, Andrew Blench, School Business Partner. 

If you would like further advice on making your school environment more welcoming and accessible for out of hours community lettings. Contact one of our experts today at hello@vivifyvenues.com 

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