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  • Claire Green

Sixth Form Open Evenings: Bringing Them Back With a Bang!


It is currently open evening season for many school sixth forms, and, having held ours this week on site for the first time since I took up my post in September 2020, I thought it might be worth reflecting on our experience in order to help other sixth form teams in the planning of their events.


Open evenings serve many purposes, but the primary purpose is surely to showcase the provision on offer at Key Stage 5. With Covid restrictions eased and the ability to hold events on site again, most schools appear to be seizing the opportunity to invite prospective students and their parents and carers onto the school site. Virtual open evenings definitely served a purpose during the pandemic, but there is arguably no comparison to visiting a school in person and having face-to-face conversations with staff and students or wandering around the school site itself, if we want visitors to gain a true insight into what sixth form life might really be like. Open evening also presents a huge opportunity for schools looking to grow their sixth forms (see my previous post on sixth form recruitment and retention for more on this). It is no surprise, therefore, that we are seeing a switch back to in-person events for open evenings, when the same may not be true of parents’ evenings for current students.


With this in mind, and only a short amount of time that visitors will actually be on site, it is imperative that open evening events are planned strategically. There are so many aspects to consider, and these will vary dependent upon many factors, including current student numbers, the school’s vision for sixth form growth (or not), ethos, budget, facilities and staffing, to name just a handful. I have tried to outline below how we planned our open evening with these things in mind, to enable as many visitors as possible to not only visit our school and hear about our fantastic provision, but also to ensure that the numbers were manageable enough that prospective students and their parents and carers were able to have meaningful conversations with staff and students and access the information they required to make an informed choice about their post-16 provider.


Numbers


The first aspect to consider might be your anticipated number of visitors. This will depend very much on your recent experience of admissions and application numbers. You should have a rough idea of the level of interest in your sixth form based on application numbers and conversion rates between application and enrolment from the last few years, and will know if there are other factors which may make a difference to interest (such as your outcomes, Ofsted judgements, new schools/colleges in the area, destinations data, engagement with your social media posts) so anticipating interest should be possible to estimate. This will allow you to decide how your evening might be structured. For example, our applications have grown significantly over the last two years, we were delighted to be judged outstanding for our sixth form provision by Ofsted last year, our results are showing an upwards trajectory and our social media engagement is high, so we anticipated there being a high level of interest in our open evening. This meant that we planned to have two different arrival times, and set ticket totals to 500 for each (our theatre capacity is 630 approx. so this allowed a ‘buffer’). In a smaller school sixth form, with capacity for fewer visitors, a single arrival time might be better, with more of a staged process throughout the evening itself – your evening should be planned in line with the above factors; there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to success.


Once this is established, you can plan the structure of the evening. As we were expecting such high numbers of visitors, we planned to have two arrival times – 5.15pm and 6.15pm – with each group signing in at desks in our theatre foyer before heading straight into the theatre for a presentation from the Headteacher, Director of Sixth Form and Student President. From each presentation, we planned that visitors would then visit the information stands in various locations before exiting the site. This was planned to ensure that there were two ‘waves’ of visitors to the information stands, rather than one, in order to ensure all visitors were able to have proper conversations with staff and students about our offer. On reflection after the evening (thanks to a suggestion from one of our SLT team when we reviewed the evening in our meeting this week), next year we plan to hold the second presentation right at the end of the evening for the visitors with the later arrival time, so they visit information stands first then return to the theatre for the presentation before departure (this will also allow for a swifter exit for all, for which staff will be very grateful!).


Practicalities


Once you have a rough idea of numbers, and therefore, the outlined structure for the evening, consider the practicalities of the event. We decided to offer online tickets via Eventbrite, which has the benefit of setting limits, gaining contact details and current schools of visitors (useful for follow-up after the event, particularly if you are looking to grow intake from external students) and setting an end point for ticket ‘sales’. This meant we knew our expected number of visitors on the day before the event.


Another practical consideration is which venues within your school site you choose to have open on the evening. It is vital to remember that you will have visitors who are both familiar with the school and those who have never visited. We decided to use a small section of our site which includes some larger venues (our site is huge, and we were conscious of the limited amount of time each group of visitors would have, so minimising time walking between rooms was key). We therefore decided to use five key spaces to display our information stands: our theatre foyer (which was for all general information), main school library, school restaurant and the two large study spaces in our sixth form centre. Information stands were grouped together based on popular subject combinations/faculties, with the biggest venue allocated to our creative subjects, to allow them to display larger examples of student work (display boards in this room were also bigger so they did not get ‘lost’ in the size of the space). This worked well, and we felt was better than showcasing subject information in classrooms around the site, as it created more of a ‘buzz’ and feeling of a university-style event.


You may also need to consider staffing (beyond those at stands – support from your SLT is key here), one way systems, food for staff, parking for visitors (as we had Eventbrite contact details, we emailed all ticket-holders on the morning of the event, asking them to be mindful of how busy the evening would be and to park in public car parks nearby and walk to the site where possible), signage (we discovered we needed more of this and bigger font size!) and accessibility for disabled visitors.


Communicating our ethos


The cornerstone of our approach to recruitment in the sixth form is promoting our belief that sixth form students should be seen, and see themselves, as role models. We promote this at every opportunity, as I have written about in previous blog posts. As with induction days, our open evening is a prime opportunity to communicate this message to prospective students (and parents). We sought to do this in a number of ways:

  • The presentation (repeated for the group with the later arrival time) began with the #RoleModels slide forming the first part of the presentation. The presentation also included what we consider to be our unique selling points as a sixth form, our admissions criteria, application process and plan for the evening itself.

  • Our logo and #RoleModels was included in all communications sent prior to, during and after the event and we posted regular adverts and countdowns to the event on our social media channels.

  • We had a real focus on destinations this year. In the run-up to the event, we shared case studies of former students, with paragraphs from them describing their current university course and commenting on how our sixth form helped them to get there. These were also displayed on social media, on screens around school and on a large display in the sixth form centre. Some subjects also followed up with their own destinations posts and displays too.


  • An individual ‘gift’ bag (put together by our wonderful student leadership team), containing a map of the school and rooms open on the evening (with quotes from our Ofsted report and key data on the reverse), pen (with logo and #RoleModels), a thank you card with QR codes linking to key pages on our website about admissions, course videos and a feedback form to gather visitors’ thought on the evening and a card showing our subject-specific criteria, as well as a blackcurrant sweet (our main school colour is purple)! Bags were handed to visitors when they signed in, on arrival.

  • Screens around school also displayed some of the key slides from the main presentation and information contained in the bags, as well as destinations case studies.

  • The school website: we ensured all pages in the sixth form area of our website were updated ahead of open evening so that communications could be as seamless as possible. The website provides a useful reference point after the evening so it is important that the central messages you wish to communicate continue via your sixth form pages and that this preparation is done prior to the evening.

  • Student helpers – The single biggest test of our ethos is whether our current students live up to it! We had a huge number of students who assisted on the evening and who absolutely showcased themselves as #RoleModels in their various roles. These included: the student leadership team signing in visitors upon arrival and handing out the ‘gift’ bags (wearing purple branded polo shirts with #RoleModels on the back and assisting visitors around the site all evening), subject officers assisting teachers at information stands, student singers in the foyer entertaining guests on arrival and whilst they were looking at information stands in the foyer, our sixth form dance company who opened each presentation with a fantastic performance from Wicked, students serving complimentary refreshments at the coffee bar, and many other roles. All students did us so proud and we had numerous positive comments from parents and carers who were impressed with their enthusiasm about their subjects and about the school more widely.

Showcasing our broad curriculum offer


The evening is an opportunity for prospective students to narrow down their choices – moving from ten or more subjects at GCSE to three at Key Stage 5 is a daunting prospect for many. Therefore, the subject/course information available both on the evening and as a follow up via the school website, is key.


To ensure all subjects were equally thorough in their approach, we tried to ensure all information about the evening was uniform in its appearance. This included information stand displays – I had a central folder of presentations for each subject (which we had created for our virtual open events during the pandemic with a set order of slides to be included) which Heads of Subject were asked to tweak prior to the event. I then arranged for the printing and laminating of all displays and we supplied each subject with a new display board the day before (so all looked the same), their subject laminates and some sticky Velcro to create their display for the evening. The larger boards in the bigger venue had A3 laminates and our student leaders made up their boards ready, as we knew these subjects would have more work to add in terms of display on the day itself. This approach ensured we had the same level of detail on display for all subjects. We also added destinations case study posters to relevant subject displays. The course video versions of the same slides are available on our website so students and parents can refer back to this information after the evening too.

Showcasing our sixth form beyond the taught curriculum


We all know that life in the sixth form is not just about the three courses students select to study. Our sixth form provision is rich with other aspects, so we wanted to ensure these were equally celebrated and displayed on the evening. We therefore had our sixth form Heads of Year available in the foyer, with information about our pastoral support system and post-18 guidance, along with some leaflets from our local university’s outreach programme, Aspire Higher. We also had displays (with large roller banners, branded with our sixth form logo etc) for our Oxbridge and Pre-Med Programmes, Extended Project Qualification, Duke of Edinburgh Award, student leadership opportunities, our societies and clubs offer, and other enrichment courses.


Once I had completed the two presentations on the evening, I wandered around the five venues which were brimming with visitors, observing our wonderful staff team effusive in their explanations of the benefits of studying their various subjects, ably supported by our committed and articulate students who could not have spoken more highly of our provision (and were keen to tell me when parents had asked them questions to test out whether what I’d said in the presentation was actually true!). I could not have been more proud.


After the evening

Any changes to events affecting sixth form admissions should be reflected upon, so that future events can be planned optimally. As such, as well as inviting feedback from visitors via the QR codes in the bags, we also invited staff to give feedback in the thank you email sent the day after open evening (accompanied by a visit from me to each faculty team base with a thank you box of chocolates). In addition, reviewing the evening was an agenda item at this week's SLT meeting so that feedback could be collated whilst it was fresh in all our minds.



Overall, we were delighted with how the evening went and felt our 800+ prospective students and parents left with a much greater appreciation of what our sixth form has to offer. With a few tweaks next year (e.g. bigger signs and switching the second presentation to the end of the evening), we hope to make it even better!

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