Knowing what to ask on an open day can be really daunting. Here Nicky Adams of the Good Schools Guide helps us know the best questions to ask.
Autumn is the time when schools throw open their doors to prospective pupils and their parents. Good Schools Guide Advice Consultant Nicky Adams offers some advice on what to look out for as you tour the establishments that could be responsible for your child’s future education.
September and October are high season when it comes to school open days. The summer holidays have quickly become a distant memory and parents’ thoughts turn to the school their child will be starting, or moving on to, a year from now. But which one?
When it comes to their child’s schooling, parents have a greater choice – whether state or independent – than ever before, and it really is impossible to tell all the available options apart without setting foot over a few thresholds. School websites and prospectuses only give half the story, if that. So it’s vital to note down the dates of open days at any school that might be suitable for your child and to visit, absorb and compare, to make sure that you choose the school that will best suit your child and provide what he or she needs to succeed.
Get ahead of the game: Start considering potential future schools for your child well in advance. A year ahead is actually the minimum; give yourself two years to research and you are likely to be able to make a more informed choice. By the time your little one is three years old, his personality is beginning to become established and it will be easier to identify the kind of primary or preparatory school that will suit him – is he quiet or outgoing, hardworking or in need of motivation? Secondary schools are best looked at for the first time when your child is in Year 4 and perhaps again in Year 5, prior to making the final selection, to give ample time to prepare for any entrance assessments, interviews or other hoops he may be asked to jump through prior to being offered a place. Certainly if moving schools at 13+, look as if for 11+ to make sure the access route is well understood. If scholarships are a possibility, check these out in the very early days to make sure your child has plenty of time to gather any evidence of his talent that the school might need to see.
How is the school and the open day advertised? Start your assessment as soon as you notice the dates for the open days in the newspaper or on the school website. How does the school communicate with future families? What’s the school’s ethos and what does it say are its strengths? Browse the website, request the prospectus if there is one, and consider how the school presents itself – then, when you visit, consider whether or not the reality matches up.
Children welcome? Potential pupils are usually very welcome at open days, but depending on your child’s age – or the reason for the move – you may decide you would prefer to visit the school without him or her, perhaps at least in the first instance. Some children can find the hustle and bustle of open days quite overwhelming and if you are considering a long list of schools, you may prefer to shorten it before involving your child. If choosing a school for a senior age child, and certainly for sixth form, your son or daughter’s input will be crucial – the decision should ideally be a joint one if you are hoping for a willing learner.
Keep your eyes and ears open: As you visit, notice…
• Is the open day well-run? If it’s smooth and professional, then the hope is that the whole school will operate along similarly efficient lines; chaotic and badly planned and there could be some concerns for the day-to-day management.
• How the staff treat you and – more importantly – how they treat your child, if he or she is with you. Ideally they will involve you all in the conversation. • How hands-on is the head? Milling around meeting families and answering questions, or shut away in his or her office on open day? How accessible would he or she be if you wanted to discuss an issue with your child at school?
• The attitudes of current pupils – are they positive and motivated, proud of their achievements and of their school? Are they cheerful about school life, their teachers and their peers? Adults may be able to gloss over the negatives, but children are generally much more honest. * The work on display – is it all highly impressive and perfect, or is a range of ability on show? Every child’s achievements should be valued and represented.
• The size of the classes and the staff-to-pupil ratio, to make sure that what you see before you tallies with the prospectus.
• The range of clubs and extra-curricular activities on offer – are pupils encouraged to become rounded individuals, or are academic results the only benchmark? • Arrangements for lunch – cooked meals or bring-your-own? Is healthy eating on the menu?
• Is the school well-maintained and clean? Dust, dirt and broken facilities are hallmarks of a place that is lacking in investment of effort as well as funds.
What is your overall impression? Can you imagine your child spending his or her days here? Do you feel confident in the staff who will care for him or her, will they be motivating, inspirational and kind? Does this place offer the education you want for your child? Try not to focus too closely on the details, but allow yourself to soak up the atmosphere and let your instincts guide you. If you need to visit again, feel free to do so at the next round of open days. After all, your child could be stepping over that same threshold for many school days to come.
Nicky Adams is a regional editor and writer for The Good Schools Guide and also a consultant for the Good Schools Guide Advice Service. For more information, go to www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk and www.gsgexpertschoolsconsultants.co.uk