So you’ve studied the Ofsted or ISI reports and looked at the league tables. You’ve tapped into the parental grapevine and shortlisted the catchment schools within a convenient distance from your home. Your next step is school open days.
Attending open days will allow you to visit the schools you’ve put on your list as possible good fits for your son or daughter. Most of these take place in September or October.
Choosing schools is not easy. That’s whether it’s a pre-school, primary or secondary school. As parents, understandably, we feel under enormous pressure to get it right. And, let’s face it; it’s probably one of the most important decisions we’ll make for our children.
Make the right choice
The right school will get the best out of your child and shape his or her future path in life.
Get it wrong. And, well, you’ll know…
The schools you list on your local authority application form are crucial. In 2017 over 91% of children got a place at their primary school of choice in the UK. More than 84% were offered a place at their preferred secondary school.
What school open days reveal
School open days are a not-to-be-missed opportunity to get a genuine sense of whether a school is right for your child.
Attending them has become even more important for parents in the current education ‘marketplace’. More and more schools have become savvy marketers. Many promote themselves via glossy brochures, attractive websites, and advertisements in local papers.
A lot are making the most of social media too, with regular posts about school life on Facebook and Twitter. These are well worth studying to get a good sense of a school.
But really, it’s only when you get inside a school that you’ll be able to see beyond the polished sell. And know if the images in the school brochure or Facebook feed portray everyday reality…
Just how much store should you set by the Ofsted report?
It’s a good idea to go to as many school open days as you can, and especially those that are in your local catchment area. This is still the most widely used admissions criteria. Whether you’ll get the school you want, though, even if it’s close to your home, will depend on many factors outside your control.
So don’t dismiss schools out of hand and don’t set too much store by the Ofsted inspection report. Schools can change quickly, as can their staff.
Be aware that the report may be out of date. More than 1,200 schools across England have not received a full Ofsted inspection in seven years, new figures published by the schools watchdog, Schools Week, have revealed.
Also don’t take too seriously what you read in Ofsted’s ‘Parent View’. It only takes one or two parents to say they don’t agree with any of the statements (perhaps because they have a bone to pick with the school) for the results to be skewed. Just a few responses can lead to 80% saying they would recommend the school to a friend, but 20% would not.
So the message is, judge each school for yourself. The more school open days you attend, the more informed you’ll be. Here’s how to get the best from them.
10-step checklist for getting the most out of a school open day
- Take your child with you
Listen to what she has to say. Is this a place she could thrive in? Watch her reactions. Encourage her to ask questions herself. Her opinion and buy-in is vital. Choosing a school will often be an intangible ‘gut’ choice, both for you – and your child.
- Choose a daytime open day if you can
Evening or Saturday open days tend to be more staged but they’re still a great opportunity to meet teachers and get a good sense of a school. Daytime, though, you’ll get more chance to see the school in action and get out into the corridors and see lessons taking place.
- Go prepared
Open days are a great chance to ask questions. So have a list of written down that you would like answered. For example, how do children of different abilities fare at the school? What sports and clubs are on offer? What options are there for GCSEs and A-levels? What’s the pastoral care like? How up to date is the ICT suite? What’s the policy towards bullying? The head of the school or departmental head may address the answer you need in the overview presentation. If not, choose your moment to speak to them afterwards and pin down the answers you need for your child.
- Get a feel for the school ethos
Yes, Ofsted reports, performance indicators and exam results are important. But a school’s ethos is vital. Look at the interaction of the pupils. How do they wear their uniform? How do they behave, towards one another and their teachers? Can you see genuine relationships? Are teachers respected but not feared? Is there a warm and happy atmosphere?
- Interview the children
Good schools encourage children of all ages to get involved in their open days. So are students helping to show you around? That’s a good sign. Obviously, schools tend to use their ‘best’ pupils for this task. But most children will be honest if you ask them the right questions out of earshot. What do they like about their school? What’s their head teacher like? Listen to what your student guides say. Do they seem enthusiastic? Are they well mannered?
- Check out the classrooms
Go into the classrooms and look at the displays on the walls. How much is pupils’ work valued? Does it show a broad range of abilities? Talk to teachers if you can. Do they seem motivated or tired? Try and scratch below the surface and gauge their stress levels. Ask them: ‘Why did you choose to work here?’ Their replies can tell you a lot.
- Spy on break time
If your open day coincides with school break time, take the chance to observe behavior in the corridors. Are the cloakrooms tidy? If you can witness the lunch break, even better. Is it calm and orderly? Are there healthy meal options? Take a peek at the toilets. Are they clean and well looked-after? Is there graffiti?
- Hover at the school gate
If there’s a chance to tap into the school-gate opinion at the end of your open day, then grab it. Talk to parents about how they feel about the school. You’ll often get an accurate sense of how the school is performing and how happy its children are this way.
- Reflect on what you’ve seen
After your school open day, note down your impressions. Did you and your child come away with that all-important feel-good factor? Consider whether you found the open day well-organised. Did it include a well-planned programme? Was there plenty of opportunity to talk to staff and pupils? This can give you a good indicator of how well run the school is.
- Plan to go back
If you liked the school, then ask if you can come for a return visit. You’ll have a clearer perspective when you go back, having attended other school open days. You’ll get the chance to see the school too on a typical day in non-showcase mode and make sure any fresh questions you have get answered.
Find out more about school open days available near you here.