With the deadlines for secondary and primary school applications looming, many of us will find ourselves traipsing around school open days over the coming days.
It’s easy to find ourselves caught up in the enthusiasm of our tour guide as they take us on a carefully orchestrated tour of their school, but it is important to remember that schools put a lot of thought into making sure visitors see only the very best bits. After all, they want you to send your child to them so they are not likely to mention any negative aspects. It can be hard to remain objective, and often it is difficult to compare one glowing school tour with another. Here are some tips for what to look for in your school open days:
What do the pupils say?
Often schools will carefully select their star pupils to show prospective parents around the grounds. Asking lots of questions of these pupils can be very revealing. Of course, these pupils will have been hand-picked to be the best ambassadors for the school so they are not likely to say anything negative. But it can be interesting to ask about things like achievement and progress and how they feel they have improved over time since starting at the school.
What does your child think?
You might think it’s better to deal with these things without your child being dragged along behind, but they are the one who will end up spending a lot of time in whichever school you choose. Gauge their reaction on the grounds and environment; do they seem to be enjoying themselves? Choosing a school is more about finding the right match for your child than choosing the one with the best Ofsted or GCSE results; it needs to be somewhere they feel comfortable and will fit in. It’s also worth giving them a little time to think things over after the visit, before you ask for their thoughts.
Ask to use the toilet.
You can tell a lot about most places by the state of their toilets. During an open day the school will of course want to show you their very best classrooms and facilities but it is also worth asking to see the toilets the pupils use. This can show you a lot about the school as a whole. After all, if the toilets are in a terrible state, what is to say the classrooms you’ve not looked at are not in a similar condition?
Listen to what the head has to say.
A school is built on its teachers, but it is the head who leads the way. The values the express when addressing a group of prospective parents can be very telling. Do they focus mainly on league tables and exam results, or are they talking about caring for the child as a whole? Which do you prefer?
Meet as many teachers as possible.
Much as leadership is important, it’s the teachers with whom your child will spend most of their time. It’s important that teachers seem happy and passionate about their work. They should be proud and keen to talk about the school and its achievements. If a teacher is gruff and dismissive with you, what will they be like with your child?
Visit again when there is no open day.
You can tell a lot about a school and its values by observing how its pupils behave when they’ve not been primed to be on their best behaviour. Something as simple as driving past at home time can tell you a lot: are the children hanging about in gangs and creating a nuisance to the wider public? Do they still look neat and tidy in their uniforms? Are there staff present to ensure children get to where they’re going without problems? All of this can tell you a lot you won’t get from an official open day.