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Attending the open day is an important part of choosing your child’s school. You will tour the school, hear the head speak and meet some pupils and teachers.

School open days, are they really worth attending?

Absolutely. All schools, not matter how oversubscribed, are keen to market their wares to future applicants – if only to make sure everyone knows just how exclusive they are. Open days may not be a true reflection of the school on an average day and will always show the school at its best, but they’ll give you a flavour of what goes on and allow you to soak up the atmosphere. An open day is your chance to get a feel for the school, inspect the facilities and chat with pupils and staff. It’s useful to visit more than one school, even if you think you have your heart set on one in particular, so you can compare and contrast. Remember: selection is a two-way process. You are choosing a school as much as they are choosing your child. So seize the day.

The head’s talk

Always make sure you’re there in time to hear the head teacher’s presentation: they are the figurehead of the school and should accurately represent its ethos and culture. Even if the head isn’t an obviously inspirational speaker, don’t write off the school – he or she may be an excellent leader who is better on a one-to-one basis. Are they welcoming and approachable or do they give the impression that the school would be doing you a favour accepting your child? It may be true – but you don’t want to feel on the back foot. Do they portray the school as an academic hothouse or indicate that it has more of a laid-back, nurturing feel? Make sure this is in line with your aspirations and the kind of culture you are seeking for your child. Are they aiming the talk more at parents or including the potential future pupils in their address too?

The school tour

In all likelihood the school tour will be conducted by an existing pupil, so ask yourself (particularly with older students) whether they are the kind of person you would like your budding 10 year old to turn into. Ask them whether they volunteered to show prospective parents around or were they carefully chosen for their glowing academics, squeaky clean personality and extracurricular credentials? All schools have a handful of Perfect Peters, it’s the rest of the motley crew you need to meet to get a true feel for the pupil cohort.

Take this chance to interrogate your young guide about what life at the school is really like:

  • Are lessons fun, noisy or too long? How much help do they get from teachers?
  • What happens if someone is being disruptive in class?
  • Is outstanding work or effort rewarded?
  • How much homework is there? Is it consistently marked?
  • What happens if they find the work too hard – or too easy?
  • What do pupils do during break times, at lunch and after school?
  • Are school meals considered gourmet or ghastly? Do teachers dine with pupils?
  • Are sports teams selected fairly?
  • If someone is unhappy or has friendship issues, who would they talk to?

Under the magnifying glass: what else should I look out for?

  • Is it access all areas or are you closely ushered, monitored and supervised?
  • Does the fabric of the school feel cared for? Many schools’ buildings are old and worn but should feel clean and free from litter.
  • Is there a band, choir, orchestra, sport for all? Plays and productions? Not all of these things may interest your child but they can often dictate the ethos and culture of a school.
  • Is the atmosphere calm, relaxed and friendly? Stiff and formal? Are current pupils smiling and communicating pleasantly with each other?
  • Are the loos clean with locks on the doors and in good order?

Visiting a boarding school

Old English boarding schoolIf you’re thinking about boarding school there’s a whole raft of extra considerations. Putting your child in boarding school implies implicit partnership and trust between school and parent. Don’t be taken in by charming heads or their marketing genies entertaining you with PowerPoint presentations and handing out DVDs (always taken on sunny days and always displaying the best of everything). Again, give some thought to what sort of character you want your child to turn out to be. Boarding schools, because they enfold your child for so much of the year, will make a substantial contribution to their character, and different boarding schools mould character in very different ways. You will never pick this up from the school’s marketing material: they all want to appear blandly wonderful.

When visiting potential schools, be sure to meet your child’s likely houseparents and the matron as well as the head teacher as these are the holy trinity that will make a difference to the day-to-day happiness of a boarder. If your child will have a tutor who looks after them for their duration of their time at the school, speak to some potential tutors too.

Ask how parent and child communicate. Weekly letter? Or nightly emails and a mobile phone? This is definitely something to talk to pupils about when you visit.

Be relentlessly questioning about any requirements which are particular to you. If your child has special educational needs (and there are many boarding schools in the UK which make superb provision for these) you will need to know exactly what is on offer, and how the school proposes to make you part of the decision-making process on such questions as whether to include or exclude your child from particular lessons. How good are the EFL lessons, and how much extra do they cost? What provision do they make for your faith? Don’t just take this on trust; talk to a co-religionist who is already at the school and find out what really happens.

Some problems that are easily tackled by local parents become much harder to deal with when a parent is distant. Discover whether matron will replenish (and mend) school (and home) clothes and if she can do it out of the secondhand shop. At the very same time you can be sussing out whether matron, and the under matrons, are cuddly, or moustachioed dragons who grump. If you want full boarding, find out how many others of your child’s age are there at weekends. What activities are laid on out of hours? Are boarders are allowed into town at weekends? How does the school control what they get up to? How can parents ditto?

The same problem of distance applies to bullying. Being able to recharge courage and self-confidence at home makes a child much more resilient in the face of low-level bullying than a child who has no such resort. Don’t be satisfied with the mere absence of stories about bullying; look for stories (particularly from gentler pupils) about how well bullying is dealt with and don’t be afraid to interrogate on this.

Do your homework

Savvy parents know that open days are one small cog in the cycle of choosing the right school for their child. Reading inspection reports from Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate, checking out internet chat forums, listening to other parents’ experiences and talking to individual teachers are all important too. We strongly recommend The Good Schools Guide as your ‘set text’ and if you still can’t see the wood from the trees, why not get in touch with our advisors at the Good Schools Guide Education Consultants who can always help guide you in the right direction.

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