Open days: what to look for and ask

LATE September and early October is the hottest period in the educational calender for parents to look at potential independent school places, in the following academic year, for their child.

However, it’s all to easy to be taken in by the glossy prospectus, whipped into a frenzy by the pizzazz and showmanship of the informal open day, or be overwhelmed by the prestige of a building and its surrounding areas. But is it what your child needs, or what you want for your child?

There is always going to be a spin with any open day. So before you visit a school and make a rash decision based on the school’s past alumni. Take a look at your child, what would actually benefit their future? Does your child have natural abilities in the performing arts, music or sport? Or is he or she more academically focused? Some schools are more geared to vocational training and qualifications for later life? Or do you favour boarding school to create independence and provide your child with a wider outlook on life?

Focus on these and other very important assessments of your child as you flick through the prospectuses or click on the schools’ websites.

Once you’ve made a decision about which school will benefit from your hard-earned cash and, more importantly, benefit your child, you need to arm yourself with a list of questions which will stem from your child’s capabilities.

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Most open days involve a tour from students, a talk from the headteacher, and a questions and answers session – so this is where your homework will come in handy.

When you arrive at the school for the open day, note your first impressions. Do you feel welcome? Does the school look well-maintained? Are the buildings new?

Speak to the headteacher and try to form an idea of the direction he or she is taking the school in and what plans they have.

For secondary schools, find out about entrance policy, and if prospective pupils have to sit an exam, ask to see a past paper. Talk with teachers from all departments. A rounded education is important, so try to judge the enthusiasm and character of all teachers, and find out more about pupils’ performances in all subjects.

Sometimes, pupils’ work displayed on the walls can give you an idea of what is being taught. Look at the equipment and facilities – for example lab equipment, computers, seats, desks, library and toilets – to ensure they are up to date.

Sports facilities should not be overlooked, as physical education is important to your child's development. Find out about what sports are offered, as well as the equipment available.

Does the school have its own playing fields or do pupils have to travel to take part in sports? Extra curricular activities are also important, so find out what activities are offered at lunchtime or in the evenings.

If you have work commitments which mean your child has to go to school early or go home late, is there a “breakfast club” or after school activities?

Find out what percentage of pupils stay on to sixth form, and how many of them go on to university, and to which universities.

Another way of getting to the heart of the school is to chat with the students. Sometimes pupils themselves help out on open days, so use the opportunity to ask them what they like and dislike about the school. Find out too what they hope to do when they leave school – this will help gauge the pupil’s ambitions in life.

And remember, although on an open day it is the school that is on show, it’s also just as important for you to make a good impression. This may well count in your favour when applying for a place at the school.

One final tip, don’t take your child with you to open days, if you really like the school arrange with the headmaster for another time to return. This way you can come back with your child and judge their reaction to the school and its teachers – what you’re looking for is an attitude of warmth, as well as authority, from the teachers who will be educating your child and more importantly, it will answer your questions about whether your child will be happy there.

QUESTIONS YOU MAY WANT TO ASK

Is the curriculum broad and well-balanced?

What are the class sizes?

How selective is the school academically and what is the current pass mark for the common entrance exam?

How does the school create a balance so that kids are successful but not too pressurised?

How long is the school day and what time will my child come home?

How much homework is there in each age group?

What are the plans for developing facilities at the school?

Would you send your own children here? (To heads/teachers) Is it fun? (To pupils - asking open questions is the best way to find out if children are happy here).

What is the school policy on bullying?

If you have any queries regarding the financial viability of the school, the bursar should be answer these – or check the school’s accounts on the Charity Commission website www.charitycommission.org.uk

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