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The ripping down of tattered displays, cleaning of classrooms and smartening of kids usually means either an inspector calling or the annual trek round classrooms by hordes of parents hungry to secure a place in the ‘best’ schools.

Are school open evenings really worth the trek?

Absolutely!

It's not only the mediocre and meagre who are eager to market; grandiose grammar schools are keen to glow - if only to brag how massively oversubscribed they are.

They may not truly reflect day-to-day life at a school (this will be school at its best) but they'll give you a flavour of what's happening and allow you to soak up the atmosphere. They are your chance to have the upper hand, get a feel for the school and chat with pupils and staff. Do visit more than one school: it’s useful to compare and contrast. Remember it's not just schools that select and choose pupils, parents select and choose schools too; so seize the evening.

Head’s talk

  • Is s/he an inspiring speaker? Don’t write the school off if not – she may be an excellent leader who is best one-to-one. But you need to feel confident that the school is in good hands.
  • Is he welcoming and encouraging, or does he give the impression that the school would be doing you a favour accepting your child? It may be true – but you don’t always want to feel on the back foot.

School tour

Is it well-organised, chaotic, efficient or improvised? If you are being shown round by a child, ask how they were picked. Are they volunteers or carefully chosen?

  • Is the work displayed selective, best efforts from the whole class, or not the work of pupils at all?
  • Quiz youngsters about how much help they get from teachers, whether lessons are fun, noisy, long... Are they allowed to talk in class? 
  • What happens if someone is being a nuisance? 
  • Is outstanding work or effort rewarded? Is homework set (and marked)? 
  • What happens if they don’t understand the work or find it too easy?
  • What do the children do during breaks, lunch and after school? Ask staff too.
  • Are school meals considered gourmet or ghastly? Do teachers dine with pupils?

If children are undertaking activities particularly in the core subjects such as maths, enquire if this is usual fodder.  The way a child responds (or teacher flaps) may be more telling than the responses they give.

Under the magnifying glass

  • Is it access all areas or are you closely ushered, monitored and supervised?
  • Does the school feel cared for?
  • Is there a band, choir, orchestra, sport for all? You may not have a musical or sporty child but music and sport often set the tone of a school.
  • Is the atmosphere calm, relaxed and friendly? Stiff and formal? Chaotic?

Take a look at the loos. Are there enough of them? Are they clean, with locks on the doors and in good order or covered in graffiti and revolting? Loos can tell you a lot.

Homework

Savvy parents appreciate open evenings are one small cog in the choosing a school cycle. Reading inspection reports, reviews, checking out discussion forums, chatting to friends and teachers are important too. We strongly recommend The Good Schools Guide as your ‘set text’.

How The Good Schools Guide can help

  • 30,000+ schools online: we have general information on all schools in Britain including contact details, performance information and links to school websites where applicable (and in some cases details of when  open days/evenings are being held)
  • 1200+ in-depth reviews of good schools
  • An abundance of vital statistics - subscribers can use the additional data facilities to compile a store of questions, see the school entry profile, how well bright/SEN kids do, which subjects are strong and which let the side down etc.
  • A host of helpful advice, including information on the admissions processes for state and independent schools, plus useful information on selection, interviews etc.

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