Here's my top tips to make your school's virtual verification work even better

I feel enormously privileged to have been involved with The National SMSC Quality Mark since its inception, but whether you are an old hand or a relative newbie, 14 months ago, many of us would not have known a Zoom from a Google Meet. Ok, so we might have used FaceTime or Skype, but our increasing experience with teaching and communicating via digital video platforms means that we probably now work in different ways, and can use this expertise to enhance the virtual verification process.
 
Some people may argue that virtual lacks the authenticity of a face-to-face (which remains our preferred approach) but, for the foreseeable, some verifiers and schools, will prefer to conduct a virtual verification for a variety of good and different reasons. 
 
Despite having conducted a few virtual verifications and Beacon School celebrations, I don’t claim any significant expertise, but I’ve put some ideas together to suggest some things that might help. I’m conscious that everyone reading this will be closely associated with schools, so forgive me if anything is too obvious. 
 
In planning this, I jotted down some ideas about the importance of being patient, tolerant, resilient, interested and accessible and initial letters form an anagram of ‘tapir’, which as everybody knows is an herbivorous mammal, with a prehensile nose, which is designed for rooting around and digging out…some of the wonderful things that schools do.
 
1) T - Tolerance
One of the first things I would remind myself, is that many school leaders, are still under enormous strain. I don’t know of a school where the staff haven’t responded magnificently, and with such dedication to the coronavirus crisis, and all the other issues that it’s brought, around disruption to learning, loss and bereavement, mental health, financial worries and children locked-down in loveless homes. This is especially so in primary schools where there are less economies of scale and fewer children can manage without close supervision. Although the press is full of reports of re-opening pubs and hairdressers, many schools still prefer to remain closed to visitors and are also still having to juggle staggered starts, lunchtimes that lasts three hours, bubbles closing and nothing being good enough for some parents! This can mean that many school leaders don’t have much headspace for visitors and may be slow, appear abrupt or distracted when we’re trying to arrange things.
 
2) A - Access 
When we are conducting remote verifications, some schools have been brilliant at recording audio / visual presentations of the corridors, displays or work that they do. This does not need to be high-tech. It might just be the teacher walking the corridors and classrooms with a phone or a tablet, giving an audio-visual description of some of the things that they do. It won’t have the richness of the face-to-face school tour, (but is probably much quicker!) and can give us a really good feel for some of the things that a school does, and a sense of the culture and ethos. If you can get it sent to you in advance, and I guess most people are used to using things like ‘We Transfer’, it can also provide some really useful talking points to add to the self-evaluation. It also gives opportunities to ask about things they haven’t shown us, not to catch anybody out but to remind them of some of the things that they do, have done or will soon do again.
 
3) P - Persistence (and Patience)
The preliminary phone call has always been important, and it’s never more so than when we are setting up a virtual verification. As we all appreciate, plans may have to be changed at very short notice but there is no reason why we couldn’t talk to parents or governors, as a phone call or separate Zoom, Teams or Google Meet, a day or two before, or after, our virtual verification.
 
Despite their increased familiarity with the e-platforms, some schools might suggest that you really can’t virtually meet the pupils because they’re in bubbles etc. It’s not perfect but it’s relatively easy to ask a member of staff to prop up the phone or a tablet in front of a group of pupils, to enable you to ask questions almost as easily as if you were there in person.  
 
One of the challenges, if the pupils sit too far away from the microphone, is that their responses can get lost in the classroom echo, so it’s worth trying to get the microphone as close to the pupils as is reasonable. If possible, it’s also worth asking if we can talk to the pupils unsupervised, which can encourage them to be more candid than if a member of staff is prompting, or answering for them. We would do this in person, and have all been DBS checked and, of course, it’s easy to record the conversation to ensure safeguarding and to avoid scribbling notes as we are listening.
 
4) I - Interested
As educators, trainers and verifiers, we have a natural curiosity to dig beneath the surface and encourage staff and pupils to explain some of the wonderful things they do. Communication is all about listening and the headsets that many people use (which can look as if they should be working as ground crew) have two earpieces and one microphone. We are all tempted to talk, (we’re teachers, what do you expect?) whether we are face-to-face or virtual, and schools will often welcome the experience and wisdom that you bring, but there’s also really important for us to listen. Those of us who coach, or counsel, will appreciate the power of simply leaving a silence rather than jumping in with the next question, which encourages the speaker(s) to say a bit more, which is almost invariably illuminating.
 
5) R - Resilience
Covid has taken its toll on everyone. As a salaried staff, some teachers forget that we make our living by supporting schools and that a missed appointment costs us in both time and money when one or both maybe in short supply. Your relentless professionalism, especially in the face of frustration, will not only promote the reputation of the Quality Mark, but supports school staff who may be wrestling their own demons. Just as teachers' resilience is still being tested, so will ours but I’m always impressed at the dedication of our verifiers and their punctilious politeness, never a doormat but consistently supportive, which is a model of excellence to inspire and support hard-pressed staff, working their socks off for children and young people. 
 
We know that these most challenging of times will pass. The opportunities provided by The National SMSC Quality Mark for schools to identify and diagnose challenges, record and celebrate successes, and, with your support, will continue to do wonderful things for children and young people. A decade ago, the pendulum had swung away from the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda. Now, Covid and curriculum changes, the statutory components of PSHEe, supported by the OFSTED framework, have provided a growing recognition of the links between pupils’ well-being and their attainment. So many colleagues now recognise the need to move beyond a myopic focus on a few things that (we think) are easily measured, supported by their SMSC development, means that we can continue to support schools across the country, and beyond, to improve the learning and life chances of children and young people.
 
So, thank-you, for all that you have done, continue to do and will do, face-to-face or virtually.
John Rees
Verifier, The National SMSC Quality Mark

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