School Open Days – What Should You Look Out For?

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I read an article some years ago that I bookmarked because it had some interesting points in it. The article appeared in the ‘Good Schools Guide’ and offered some advice to parents who were thinking of attending school ‘open days’.  As we look to start new terms and academic years I thought it might be prudent to revisit this topic adding from my own experience as someone who has worked in several independent schools nationally and internationally.

In reality ‘open days’ serve two purposes. Firstly to allow schools the opportunity to ‘show off’ what they have regarding facilities, campus and to a certain extent key staff (you could call it marketing opportunity) in the hope that they attract you, the paying customer, to buy in to their product.  The second purpose should be to allow prospective parents the opportunity to have a good ‘nose around’, to be able to ask key questions about the place and to facilitate the initial gathering of important information.

Independent schools pursue various open day strategies. According to the ‘Good Schools Guide’…

some aim to maintain a business-as-usual approach (Canford,) whilst others run a “cracking good day out” (Uppingham), offer flavoured milkshakes for younger siblings (Wellington) or strive towards “the look and feel of a wedding reception” (Marlborough)”.

Initial Research – Web and Social Media

Before any shortlist of possible ‘Open days’ is made (and once you have assimilated any other information you have available to you e.g. you were an ‘old boy’ of the school, your friends have kids there etc.) your initial research must start ‘on line’ first. In this day and age the School website is the equivalent to what was the main sign outside the school gates – it is the main signage point. Check out the schools web presence – what is the site like? Is it easy to navigate and get to the information you want? What do they value most on their home page? Is it all about the Head and his/her philosophies and ‘school aims & objectives’?  Is it all about sport, outdoor pursuits and music or does it flag academic achievement too? Does it grab you? Is the impression one of traditional and ‘old school’, contemporary and ‘current’ or a happy blend of ‘heritage and forward thinking’? What are YOU looking for?

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Also, don’t forget to check out the other social media ports of call – primarily Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. The former is less likely to have an actual school page (but some do) whilst Twitter is certainly the most current method of circulating information by schools and it is growing all the time. Linkedin is a useful resource to gather more information about staff and can offer insight into the nature of human resources that a school has (where they came from, how long they have been there etc.).

So, once that initial research has been made…

How do you get the most out of a school open day?

  • Upon arrival, as you drive up to the gates and on through, what does your initial gut reaction tell you? Are they well kept and organised surroundings? Clear and concise directions? Pleasant and friendly ushers/guides/parking attendants?

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  • Once herded in (I use the term loosely) and with a glass in hand listen attentively to any of the initial talks/speeches given by the Head/Headmistress. How do they present themselves? Look around at the other staff that are present (normally Senior Management, HODs – Heads Of Departments – and House staff) and gauge their responses to the speech. Are they smiling and nodding approvingly or not paying attention and standing there disinterested? You can learn a lot from how the other staff react to their boss talking.
  • Talk to as many pupils as you can around the place. Asking them which subjects are best is not always a good call (although it will offer you some insight). If they are senior pupils they may not have come up all the way through the school and will only be studying three to five out of the fifteen or so subjects on offer. That said, do ask what they do during breaks and (if it is a boarding school) what they do in the evenings. Also, if you feel a little ‘Harry Potterish’, ask them what they would change about the school if they had a magic wand.  You can get some good responses to that.
  • Try not to judge the entire school on the basis of one shy boy or over gregarious girl who shows you around. The flip side to this is that some schools do use first or second year pupils to do tours as they offer quite a fresh and honest approach to your questioning and are not yet caught up in the deep rooted school rhetoric. If schools do this – they have confidence in what they do (Cranleigh does this for example).
  • Try to chat to some other parents at the initial drinks/refreshments upon arrival. What do you think of them? Are they ‘your kind’ of people? Would you be happy for your children to mix with theirs?  It may sound very sad but you need to be honest with yourself here. It’s a big investment and needs careful consideration, as socially there is a lot to be gained for yourselves as much as for your kids.
  • Seek out the school noticeboards. Are they well kept, neat and current? Is there a lot of diverse activity going? For example, Music, Art, Design, Theatre, Sports (including details of matches), details of chapel and pastoral care, commendations/merits and awards etc. Is there a board showing all the staff photos and department heads? Do they look happy?

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  • For me one of the most important (and most underused) marketing tools in a school is its loo’s. Nothing is more revealing about a school’s priorities than its lavatories. Is there information up on the walls about recent achievements (academic and sporting) up and coming events and so forth? Are they clean and fresh looking – well kept?
  • If your child will be boarding, try to get around to a couple of boarding houses at least. Admittedly most schools allow Housemasters/Housemistresses to stamp their own feel on a place so hopefully the boarding houses will have their own individual feel but do try to take a close look at the sleeping accommodation to see what it is like. Single rooms? Dormitories? Social areas? Amid all the tours, lectures and wine, this is the part of the visit most easily neglected.
  • If your child is to be a day pupil what facilities do they have (as above minus the sleeping arrangements)?
  • If you have the time don’t be afraid to wander off-piste: you’re not a pupil, nobody is going to tell you off.

Most importantly NEVER judge the school by its open day alone!

Use it solely as a starting point. You will probably be able to drop one or two off your radar at this juncture – but then you must arrange to pop back for a more personally tailored visit or one-to-one chat with the Head/Headmistress and other key staff as you, and your child, sees fit.

Remember that a school open day is the time for that first initial contact. It should give you, the parent, an initial feel for the school and provide you with enough information to be able to make some pretty important judgement calls. If you have not got what you need don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and ask.  They should be only too keen to help.

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