7 things to ask at school Open Days
Looked around a school and still can't judge if it suits your child? Victoria Bond, founder of School Guide, gives her tips on what to see, do and ask.
In this job I get to visit a lot of schools, but school Open Days are a bit of an enigma. The experience can be incredibly opaque, with fresh-faced children performing near perfect renditions of Handel’s Messiah, but it’s tricky to get more than a broad impression of the school in such a limited time. You know the drill – a head’s upbeat introduction; über-confident speeches from head boys and girls about how fantastic the school is and how all children will become happy, successful and quite possibly leader of the planet should they come here; some crowd-pleasing explosions in the chemistry lab; and a couple of students showing you around who have clearly been briefed to charm your children at all costs (they will succeed). It’s not a lot to go on when it’s your precious child’s schooling is on the table.
So how to make these Open Days count a bit more, how to read between the lines, or expose potential issues? Only one thing for it – ask an expert! Thank you to Victoria Bond, founder of of school data site School Guide for her insightful advice on what to ask, look out for, and do. And after you’ve been to the school, why don’t you pick her brains for some seriously knowledgeable advice? Over to you, Victoria…
I speak to hundreds of parents every week from all across the UK and many of them worry about making the right choice. Actually they worry about a lot of things but school choice usually rises to the top as we approach key entry points. Step back, do your research and follow your instincts, and it doesn’t have to be horribly stressful. No one – NO ONE – is better placed to pick a school for your child than you. You know whether the A* academic dazzler will be the place where your child will shine. Or maybe the school with the slightly wobbly Ofsted report but the visionary new Head will be better. In a world of SATs and CATs, guts go a long way.
Make like a cub scout: be prepared. Take the pressure off and start looking long before your child’s application is due – you are not a pushy, helicopter or sharp-elbowed parent if you start planning early. Not London early, where pockets of SW-whatever parents put names on school waiting lists in utero, but it’s a good idea to start looking at prep schools when your child is two- or three-years-old, and senior schools when you child is nine or ten (Year 5). You can then re-visit your shortlist just before you make a decision.
See the school on an ordinary day. Open Days or Evenings are big show-and-tells and give a broad flavour of a school but the best way to see a school is to go back on a normal day, because this is what your child is going to experience. Less shiny pop-up project displays, more pupils. You should have the opportunity to move informally around the school and if you’re not offered the chance to see the school in its usual working state, that’s when alarm bells should start to ring.
Don’t be fooled, either, by the sage school run mums and dads who declare: ‘Relax. ALL the schools around here are good. Yes, we have a cluster of great schools in and around Wiltshire but you need to work out which one is great for your child.’ This takes homework. Lots of it. With notebooks, highlighter pens and everything.
Talk to kids in the first year but also the sixth form. Parents want to know that their children can ebb and flow in their time at school – it’s not like they’re salmon just heading one way up the river, it’s a long journey. Particularly in terms of senior schools where the changes are so profound, you are looking into your child’s eyes at 10 years old thinking about what’s right for them now, but you also need to think, ‘what are they going to be like and need at 18’? The best gauge is to make sure you meet at least one sixth former when you’re visiting a secondary school – this is what your child could become!
Don’t judge a school by your tour guide. Schools will always pick the eloquent and well presented kid who “volunteered” to show you round. However, do ask them off-topic questions like what the food is like, what they do at break times or where they hang out after school. It can tell you a lot.
Grab your New Best Friend goggles. It’s okay to check out the other parents while you tour the corridors. Do you think they are similar to you? Would your children get along? A good sense of community often goes hand in hand with good results.
Talk to the Head. This is the person shaping the school ethos and their values and ideas about education should ideally reflect your own. How truthful is the Head being? Schools should be truthful about the kind of child that thrives in their environment. It’s not an honest appraisal to say that all kids thrive at every school – some children need a bigger school, others a smaller environment and all children have different needs and backgrounds. If they’re coming from a tiny primary school in a rural village, how will they cope in a large school getting the bus into town every day? Most schools aren’t one-size-fits-all and it’s important that schools acknowledge their idiosyncrasies.
Consider the co-ed question carefully. No simple answer to this question and any school that didactically tells you that their way is the best is being disingenuous. Don’t be fixed on your options based on your own experiences – for example single sex education has moved on a lot. If you have a boy, having girls in the class can be a helpful influence – they are calm, they get the groups focused. However, it’s well known that there’s a huge maturity gap between 8-11 between boys and girls, so for some girls a single sex environment can be better in terms of their learning.
What to ask about pastoral care. Ask the question – what happens when things go wrong? How does the school support parents and pupils in difficult times? Any Head should be able to give concrete evidence. Ask for something that’s happened and how it’s been dealt with. If the head is too busy to talk on the night, there’s no reason why you can’t request a private meeting another time. If he or she is not available, there will be someone in a leadership role who can answer your questions. Things to ask: the ethos of the school – how will you assure me my child will flourish? What if my child starts to struggle with a subject, what is your bullying policy, how do you cope with mental health disorder? What is your social media and phone policy? These are all reasonable questions and you can expect detailed answers.
Victoria Bond is the founder of School Guide, and runs School Guide Consultancy. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Book Here for consulting advice and to help you find the right school for your child.