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Free article: Creating a more accessible, open and welcoming school environment

After eye-opening experiences as an SBM consultant and coach, Andrew Blench shares observations and suggestions for making schools more welcoming, including stakeholder surveys, physical access improvements and communication reviews.

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Many SBMs are responsible for managing the school site and health and safety, and ‘learning walks’ are a great way of staying on top of this significant and complex remit.…

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Free article: Creating a more accessible, open and welcoming school environment

Published: Wednesday, 28 August 2019 14:07

After eye-opening experiences as an SBM consultant and coach, Andrew Blench shares observations and suggestions for making schools more welcoming, including stakeholder surveys, physical access improvements and communication reviews.

Summary points

  • Research has established a link between schools being welcoming and engaging, and academic progress for children.
  • Most schools consider themselves a friendly and engaging place, but this may not be the perception of their visitors. 
  • Consider physical access to your school. Is the entrance clearly signposted, and are parking spaces accessible?
  • Avoid ‘incongruent communications’, where your stated message is contradicted on other levels, including verbal and non-verbal

I left my role as SBM in a high school to set up as an SBM consultant and coach in 2016. Since then I have visited lots of schools across Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and London in the course of my work. I had always thought that most schools were friendly, open and welcoming places until I started my current role. What I have found is that some schools are unwelcoming and extremely difficult to engage with as an outsider. This has made me reflect upon what it must be like for those who have to engage on a regular basis with the schools I visit. I am, after all, only visiting for a short period as a consultant, but how do people such as parents, contractors and inspectors experience the school?

Why is this 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 as well as a noun, that we show this welcome by saying or doing something to express it, such as ‘Welcome stranger! Long-time no see!’

When we are welcoming of contacts from our key stakeholders, this encourages further contact and repeat engagement with us and our school.

Part of the Ofsted judgement regarding leadership and management is that ‘leaders engage effectively with learners and others in their community, including – where relevant – parents, carers, employers and local services’ (the School inspection handbook (EIF), 2019).

Your school’s results on Parent View will form part of the next Ofsted inspection. One of the 12 statements parents/carers are asked to respond to 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.

Research has established a link between schools being welcoming and engaging, and 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 and Grayson, 2013).

Perception versus reality

I imagine that if you asked your school staff how welcoming, friendly and accessible your school is, most would say that it is a friendly place and easy to engage with. But, of course, you would be asking the wrong people. I would suggest that schools conduct, on at a least a bi-annual basis, a stakeholder communications survey that is sent to 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 implemented (see Form – External communications survey in the Toolkit).

Physical access

While it is important to safeguard the young people at our schools, and to make sure that the site isn’t so accessible that anyone can just walk in, this doesn’t mean that we have to turn them into prisons. I have visited many schools for the first time and been completely perplexed as to how to access the site from the road. Because we work at our schools every day we are used to the access routes, but what is obvious to us isn’t to others. Are there clear external signs directing visitors to the entrance to your grounds, showing them where to park and how to get to reception? Use the principle of a bread crumb trail leading from the point of external access to the reception door, for example painted footsteps on the ground.

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 places and that they will not always get a response straight away; however, I have had to wait ten minutes for a response, which I do not think is very welcoming. If you have an electronic access system, are there written instructions next to it saying how to use it? I have visited some schools were there have been a variety of buttons on display with no instructions on how to use them.

Do you tell your visitors in advance about parking arrangements and access to the site? I recently visited a large primary school (600+ pupils), at their invitation, which only had ten visitor parking spaces. These were accessed from a long single-track fenced-in drive which was also used by delivery vehicles. All ten spaces were in use when I arrived, so it would have been helpful for me to know in advance that this was a possibility.

The reception experience

Once you have cracked the code and reached reception, how welcoming is this experience? The basics are, one would hope, a friendly, ‘Good morning. How may I help you?’ However, I have visited some schools where I have stood in reception and been ignored by office staff. They have eye-balled me and then continued with their admin tasks! I understand that not everyone who is in the office at that time necessarily knows the reception procedures, but it wouldn’t cost anything to say, ‘John will be with you in a minute’.

I have experienced a wide range of signing-in processes, ranging from the light touch (no signing in or checking of identity, but simply being taken through to see the person I have an appointment with) to a version of the MI5 job application process. I have been asked for sight of my DBS disclosure, a passport or driving licence, a signature on an A4 sized paper to say that I have read and understood the school’s 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 their appropriateness. If I am only going to be in the school for an hour and will be with the headteacher for all of that hour, do you really need to see my DBS? I also wonder about the volume of admin work this generates. It might be worth looking at your school’s reception check-in experience and asking: ‘Does it protect everyone? Is it proportionate to the risk level? Is it welcoming and accessible?’

Many 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, meaning average-sized visitors have to get on their knees to get a headshot.

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 us, but then make this (intentionally or unintentionally) a difficult experience, we are being incongruent. The danger is that the message we are giving (e.g. ‘stay in touch’) is contradicted by the experience, which seems to say ‘we don’t want to hear from you’. To avoid this, I would offer the following tips:

  • Be clear about 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 ‘Worked example – Marketing and communication channels grid’ in the Toolkit).
  • Resource the channels effectively. Some of this is also about managing people’s expectations, so let people know what school reception opening hours are (most schools don’t display this information on letters or their website) and in what timeframe they can expect an answer to an email.
  • Let people know when you will be unresponsive (e.g. school holiday dates) and how this will affect any response times. This can be added to the switchboard messaging and in email automated responses. In my experience, not all schools do this as they expect people already to know or have this information. In my view this is an unreasonable expectation.If you use an Automated Caller Distribution (ACD) system on your switchboard, don’t use more than three options. I have contacted some schools where there are eight options. By the time I have listened to them all I have forgotten what they are. Take a survey of what people are phoning about using a simple five-bar gate (tally) record over a term or half term. Then make the top three your ACD options.
  • If you are not going to encourage people to use individual staff email addresses, then have 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 a 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’, a proverb often attributed to Native American sources, is appropriate here. If we want to create welcoming school environments that encourage engagement with and from our key stakeholders, we all need to step out of our own comfort zones and see things as the uninitiated see and experience them. 

You may also like to refer to Worked example – Checklist for effective information sharing, which looks at creating better communication with outside agencies in order to protect and safeguard vulnerable children.

Further information

  • School inspection handbook (EIF), Ofsted, May 2019: http://bit.ly/2NktCu0 
  • Parent View toolkit for schools, http://bit.ly/2XFeIm1
  • Teacher Guide: Rapid Review of Parental Engagement and Narrowing the Gap in Attainment for Disadvantaged Children, Aston, H. and Grayson, H., 2013, Slough and Oxford: NFER and Oxford University Press

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Andrew Blench is an independent school business leader and coach, with over 30 years’ experience of operational management gained in the civil service, financial services, NHS and education. Formerly SBM of Dinnington High School, Rotherham, he has since created his own company, ‘School Business Partner’. He now supports different schools across Yorkshire and the East Midlands on an interim, project or consultancy basis. Find out more at www.schoolbusinesspartner.co.uk.

Last modified on Friday, 11 October 2019 16:04

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