How to Make The Most of Open Days

14th September 2018

By Lisa Botwright

People buying a home typically spend just 33 minutes looking around the property before making what is likely to be one of the most expensive purchase decisions of their lives. It’s a shockingly short time. But is it so different from attending an Open Day?

Not only is choosing a school a huge financial decision – if you’re going down the independent route, that is – but it’s also very emotive, given that we want our little ones to be happy, as well as academically productive, in their new school.

Yet parents must make decisions about their children’s future success based on a short visit, rarely more than an hour long, so it’s vital to get the most out of your time.

Children begin formal education – ‘big school’ – in the September after they turn four, and most application deadlines are the autumn before that, so the search needs to begin as early as possible.

There’s a huge wealth of independent options in this area, but that can make the choice overwhelming. Unlike maintained schools, in which your preference may be constrained entirely by your postcode, there is no such limit in the independent sector. Parents can look as far afield as family life allows.

The initial research is crucial, as is talking to as many other parents as possible to gauge recommendations and piggyback on other people’s experiences.
Things to consider include whether you prefer a prep school or a through-to-18 school, for example, and what your thoughts are on co-education versus single sex. Logistics are very important, too. Can you accommodate the school run with your own journey to work? Does the school offer extended hours?
What’s the admission rule for siblings?

And you need to decide whether the ethos of the school reflects your family values. Are you academically ambitious for your youngster, investing in an independent education to give them the best possible springboard to a top university and a glitteing career? Or are you happy for your child to move at their own pace, exploring a holistic and broad curriculum within an environment where sport, art and citizenship are valued equally alongside the core subjects?These two scenarios need not be mutually exclusive, but it’s worth a little bit of soul-searching to examine your priorities.

Then there are the practicalities of visiting. You may, confusingly, find open mornings being called ‘school in action’ mornings or ‘school tasters’ but they’re all broadly the same. Often the biggest difference is that some are during the week in school hours and some are at weekends. If you can take time off work, it’s good to visit when you can observe the natural dynamics of a school day – but schools do take great pains to ensure that weekend open events are still buzzy, with lots going on, and plenty of opportunities to chat with staff and pupils.

If you can’t make the planned open mornings, feel free to request an individual tour. Ideally, in fact, it’s best to go to your shortlisted schools twice: once during the official open days, when everything is polished to perfection, but you can chat easily with pupils and teachers; and again during a routine day. Most Headteachers will keep room in their diaries for pre-arranged tours – and they’ll appreciate the chance to meet with prospective parents too.

Each school runs their open events differently, and your experience may vary considerably: you may be shown around in groups or individually, by staff or by pupils. When you arrive, ask about the structure of the day – will there be an opportunity to meet the Headteacher, and will they be speaking formally at set times or mingling informally over coffee? Are there friendly sporting events going on, or music or drama recitals? (Schools love the opportunity to showcase their talented pupils.)

As you move around the building or buildings, you’ll see the facilities on offer. Are the computers up to date? Are there whiteboards in every classroom? You’re looking for evidence of investment in the school, which will show if the establishment is flourishing financially and keeping up-to-date with innovations in teaching and learning.

Are the displays on the walls creative and inspiring? Exciting displays reflect exciting and dynamic teaching. Are the staff welcoming and approachable? Ask to see the children’s books. If an adult lingers suspiciously long over a pile of books in a attempt to pick out their brightest pupil, ask to see examples of differently attaining children. Have a look at the natural progression between the different age groups.

If your tour guide is an adult, hopefully you’ll still have the chance to chat with some of the pupils. Children are refreshingly honest and you’ll know instantly if they’re anything less than happy and motivated. Look for big beaming smiles as they talk about their school, pride in their work, of course, but also kindness and good manners.

The visit is really about assessing the subjective stuff that the website can’t show you: the charisma and vision of the Headteacher, the passion and kindness of the teachers, and the vitality of the children. After that, it’s all about the ‘gut feeling’… just like when you bought your family home…

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