Choosing a School: Visiting School Open Days
In the last piece we covered three really important sources of information that families can use to come up with a shortlist of school preferences: Recent applications data, school websites, and local word-of-mouth.
In this article we are going to cover visiting school open days and what to ask.
Schools will generally advertise their open days on their websites. Some schools are still running virtual open days due to the pandemic, but if they have them in person, it is well worth booking to go along and really get a feel for what goes on behind the school gates.
Student Tour Guides
Every school wants to make the best impression possible. So some may handpick their most eloquent and polished students to take prospective parents on a planned tours of the campus.
Don’t take our word for it, take Geoff Barton’s, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He admits, schools will always wheel out their star pupils for the open evening: “They’ll choose the pupils who are their ambassadors.”
So don’t be afraid to quiz these ‘star pupils’. Ask them about their achievements and whether they’ve made any progress from year to year. Ask them what they enjoy the most about their school – and what they like least.
Find out how discipline is managed. What are the expectations – and the sanctions?
What extra-curricular opportunities are there? Are they open to all, or just select students?
How about SEN? What are the provisions and are SEN students supported to achieve their true potential?
The Headteacher Talk
Being a good educator and leader, doesn’t always mean an individual is an inspirational speaker. A key part of any school’s open day is the headteacher’s presentation, after all “they are the figurehead of the school and should accurately represent its ethos and culture”.
But if the speech isn’t quite as ‘inspiring’ as you’d hoped, don’t rush to make a decision just yet. Therefore, you should seek to approach them afterwards on a one-to-one basis, in order to get a real taste as to whether they come across as welcoming and approachable.
It is also about seeing whether the headmaster and school is promoting the kind of culture that you want your child to be exposed to. Are they an academic hot house, or just too laid-back?
Don’t leave your child at home!
Open days and evenings are not just for the parents. It is also a perfect opportunity for your child to experience first-hand the prospective school that could be their second home for the next few years of their educational development.
It is therefore important to make sure that they soak up the atmosphere first-hand and that you get their reaction from their visit. Just as much as parents need to be able to envisage their children attending the chosen school, the prospective pupils themselves need to feel comfortable with it as well.
If your child has a particular talent, interest or skill, make sure that there is provision for these. Are there associated clubs? Is there the opportunity to study a relevant subject at GCSE or at A level?
They say you can tell a lot from a school by the state of their toilets. Pupil guides and teachers will want you to see the brand-new sports fields, refurbished buildings, and latest high-tech performing arts facilities, but as Geoff Barton says: “Toilets, in my experience, tell you a lot about a school’s values.”
So don’t be afraid to ask your guides to show you the ‘pupil facilities’.
PTE’s Four Key Mantras
As parents we all want educational excellence for our children and we know this is achieved when schools have a strong culture and a great curriculum, underpinned by PTE’s four key mantras: Warm/Strict, Knowledge Rich, Wide Curriculum, High Ambition.
When schools are built on these four foundations, every child should thrive, no matter their background or starting point. So as a prospective parent and pupil, how can you tell whether a school embraces those four components?
First of all, always question whether the school really cares about the children. Is the school’s attitude ‘it’s an honour to teach your children’ or is their view ‘your children are lucky to be at our school’?
Ask yourself, will your child be immersed in the rich knowledge needed in order to build a foundation to understand the world they live in and deal with increasingly complex situations and ideas. When speaking to teachers and assessing the school’s curriculum, ask yourself is it the perfect environment to allow your child’s innate creativity to be unleashed?
The best teachers should work within plans for subject-specific lessons, to deliver concepts and knowledge in ways the children can understand, build on and remember. Only through this way can your child’s knowledge and creativity grow over time.
Is the school high on ambition? The best schools will recognise, and capitalise on, all the potential inherent in every child, preparing pupils for their best possible lives – expecting the best both from them and for them, giving them the ambition to aim for the highest prizes, and supporting them to achieve their hopes and dreams. So, ask yourself, is your chosen school embracing this approach and designing their entire environment to help young people do their best? From lessons planned to the assemblies held; how pupils are encouraged to behave, or the exams they sit.
Finally, a wide and varied curriculum goes beyond literature, maths, sciences, and languages. It embraces other important and sometimes overlooked extracurricular experiences such as drama, work experience, CCF, guest speakers, concerts, and sport. And not forgetting, everyone’s favourite, school trips. Lashings of enriching experiences for everyone, not just privileged pupils in a minority of schools.
Take a good look at everything from the teachers and educators to the IT facilitators and dining room staff. Not all lessons are learnt from inside the classroom, so make sure to dig deep on every aspect that the school has to offer.