Nearly all schools, no matter how oversubscribed, want to market their wares to future applicants. A school open day may not be a true reflection of an average school day and will always show the school at its best. But it will give you a flavour of what goes on, allow you to soak up the atmosphere, hear the head speak, meet pupils and teachers, and to look beyond what the website, Ofsted or the DfE tells you.
Why attend a school open day?
It’s always useful to visit more than one school open day so you can compare and contrast. Even if you have your heart set on a particular school, competition for places and catchment areas may work against you. And remember, when it comes to independent schools, selection is a two-way process. You are choosing a school as much as they are choosing your child. So seize the day.
A positive to arise from the pandemic was the virtual open day. Clearly nothing can quite beat that feeling you get when you cross the threshold of a school, walk the corridors and breathe in the atmosphere. But if you live overseas, or can’t access the school for any other reason, a virtual open day is a good compromise.
Attend the head’s presentation
No matter what, attend the head’s presentation on the school open day - they are the figurehead of the school and will 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?
Questions to ask at a school open day
Quiz the pupils
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 child 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 some Perfect Peters; it’s the rest of the motley crew you need to meet to get a true feel for the pupil cohort.
Your young guides will be expecting a list of questions so take your chance to ask:
- What do you like best about the school?
- What subjects do you like best? (This often reveals the most popular members of staff)
- Who wouldn't like it or fit in here?
- Are you allowed to be an individual, to get on with your own thing, without teasing or bullying? (This might flush out peer group pressure to conform)
- What changes would you make if you were in charge?
- Where is the head’s office? What do you think of them?
- Have you got a brother or sister in the school; what does he/she think of it?
- What happens if you forget your books, calculator, homework?
- Do teachers mark your work promptly and explain where you've gone wrong? What happens about corrections?
- How difficult is it to get selected for a school sports team or choir or after-school club?
- Is it okay not to like/be good at sport? (Boys’ schools in particular)
Teaching and learning
- How good is ‘value added’? Value added measures, like Progress 8, score the improvement in pupils’ performance over the years. If a child enters school with an expectation they will attain all grade 4s at GCSE (based on their Sats performance) and then does, no value has been added (clearly, the lower the expectation, the greater the scope to add value).
- How does overall value added compare with those in similar schools you like? Is this consistent over all subjects or is the good news all in one or two areas? (We carry this information for state schools, and much more, on schools' data pages.)
- How does the school monitor progress? The best use regular tracking integrated with the value added system, which allows the school to pick up underperformance quickly (within a term). If this is working well, it will result in lots of happy stories about pupils rescued and enthused teachers.
- What about pressure? Are they loaded down with homework from the off? Or do some spend the first few years coasting whilst others catch up? In some selective schools, in particular, pupils put immense pressure on themselves. How does the school deal with this?
- Is it all work and no enrichment? Do they get out to visit galleries and museums, on geography field trips and language exchanges?
- What subjects are popular at A level? Is there a strong gender divide, with boys doing maths/science whilst girls do arts and languages?
- What languages are genuinely on offer - and how many take them – at GCSE and A level? One or two exotic foreign languages are more likely to imply a cohort of overseas students than a diverse offering for your offspring.
- How are pupils grouped? Setting? Streaming? Mixed ability? Vertically? Horizontally? Or a mix of methods? There is no one right answer – but the school should be able to explain its policies.
- Homework - how much, how often? Is there a homework club? Is additional help available from tutors or subject teachers via email? How is homework monitored, recorded and reported?
- How does the school deal with particular needs? See The Good Schools Guide section on Special Educational Needs
Sport, arts and extracurricular
- Sport for all? If your child is keen on sport but unlikely to make the first XI, find out the school’s attitude. Are there house teams, fourth and fifth teams, sports clubs open to everyone? Or does the school concentrate all its efforts on the top performers, with no opportunities for those who play for fun? Is there good sporting choice? Are the facilities onsite or a bus ride away?
- Music - does it strike a chord? How many pupils learn a musical instrument, and for how long? Are there ensembles, choirs and orchestras? Do only the elite get a chance to perform?
- Are budding thespians well served? Are there plenty of productions, and opportunities for everyone to get involved, backstage or front?
- What about art? Is it displayed throughout the school (tells you how seriously they take it, and gives you an insight into talent, breadth etc)?
- How many times a term will the average class get a trip? Is the German exchange open to everyone, or is it first come, first served? Are curriculum trips compulsory? Who gets to go on sports tours?
- Are there plenty of clubs for all interests, from chess to macramé?
Pastoral care, inclusivity and discipline
- Who is responsible for pastoral care? Who will be overseeing your child – form tutor, head of year?
- How aware is the school of the dangers of eg disordered eating, depression or self-harm?
- Are there houses and what role do they play in school life? What about student council?
- What does the school do about bullying? Bullying is universal so ‘We don’t have it here’ probably means they don’t look and there’s lots of it. A good sign is frequent examples of dealing well with it.
- LGBTQ+ issues – are pupils supported? Is inclusivity part of the curriculum and are there societies?
- What is the food like? Is it healthy and plentiful?
- Water - deluge or drought? Are drinking water fountains placed conveniently around the school? Are pupils allowed to take water into classes?
- What happens to those who steal, use bad language or break the more petty school rules? What about sex, drugs and alcohol? How many have been excluded in the past three years?
- How involved are parents with school life? Are they encouraged to attend mid-week matches, weekend chapel or special assemblies?
- How does the school report to parents? How often are parents’ evenings? How often are school reports issued? You would be surprised how many schools only provide one written report a year.
- Are there regular parental socials? Is there an active PTA?
- Is there special provision for parents on the school website?
- Getting in touch. Can parents talk to (or email) teachers when they want to – and will they get a response?
Virtual school open days
Virtual open days are a relatively new tactic for schools and each has their own way of doing things. For some, it’s a programme of live presentations and events on a set date and time which families can engage and interact with from home. For others, it may be a section of the school’s website offering pre-recorded content. Some schools combine both.
With live virtual open days, as with the trad open day experience, parents may be asked to register on the day, or ahead of time (independent schools in particular will want to keep in touch with any interested parties). You will be sent a schedule including a welcome talk from the head, a tour of the school and grounds and, ideally, a fully interactive Q&A forum with senior staff (and possibly pupils too). You may also get the opportunity to book some face time with the head, senior staff or someone relevant to your child’s interests. Have your questions ready and remember this one-to-one time also gives you the opportunity to make a positive impression.
Boarding school open days
If you’re thinking about boarding school, there’s a whole raft of extra considerations. Don’t be taken in by charming heads or their marketing genies entertaining you with PowerPoint presentations and footage from drones swooping down on the school estate (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.
Putting your child in boarding school implies implicit partnership and trust between school and parent. So be sure to meet your child’s likely houseparents and the matron, as well as the head. 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 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 second-hand 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.
Additional school open day research
Savvy parents know that open days are one small cog in the cycle of choosing the right school for their child. Reading inspection reports, 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.
Photo credit: Whitgift School
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