School Open Days are usually held in the Autumn term because parents are asked to make an application for school places in January. The deadline in Cumbria is the 15th January. However, Borrowdale School, like most other schools, will allow your child to join at any time during the year. So any day is a good day for an open day and we’ll be opening our doors for prospective families on Wednesday this week.
If you are looking for a school for your child, you will probably have already done some research. Maybe you’ve compared the schools’ websites and Facebook pages? But please don’t rely on the schools’ marketing materials alone.
To get behind the gloss, there’s nothing like actually visiting the school. Often, you’ll know instinctively if you like the school. Seeing the school in action and watching how teachers and pupils interact will give you the best picture of the ethos and nature of the relationships in the school.
Which brings me to the first ‘not to do’…
1. Don’t think you have to take your child to the Open Day
If your child is mature enough to come along, then definitely take them with you. Watch their reactions to what they hear and see. Encourage them to ask questions. Their views matter. Take note of how the teachers respond to them.
But… the decision is up to you. If your child is still young and you know that he or she may be a distraction, think twice. Will your little one be shouting out: “Mummy can we go now?’ while you try and quiz the head teacher? Then maybe consider going alone on your first visit to the school
Your aim is to get a real feel for the school. So, if you know your child is going to make it impossible for you to concentrate, leave them behind (for now). If you do like the school, you can arrange another visit or a taster day for your child.
2. Don’t rely on the school inspection report or league tables
This may seem a strange thing to say because our inspection reports are glowing! However, inspection reports and league tables give an overview of standards at a snapshot in time. Sadly, they tell little about a school’s ethos. Nor whether it’s a happy school with an enriching wider curriculum and great care for the children. Only you can decide that.
Ofsted publications are a good starting point, but don’t rely on the report or SATs results as a meaningful indicator of the teaching standards. Teaching to test is what some schools have done to remain high up in the Ofsted league tables.
No inspection report will tell you if it’s the right school for your child. You’ll probably know instinctively when you actually go into the school if you like the ‘vibe’
3. Don’t believe ‘staged’ events
Let’s face it, every Open Day is ‘show-time’ for a school. But we deliberately plan our Open Days in normal school hours. You get to see a normal school day, with normal school children going about their normal business.
4. Don’t turn down the opportunity to chat with a pupil
Notice if they are polite and articulate. Are they modest but assured? Or a brash smarty-pants? Watch how pupils interact with their peers and their teachers. Are they enjoying the day or does it seem like a chore? Ask them all the questions you like. Just chat away. Ask them:
Remember that many children are unable to compare schools because they haven’t been to other schools. You can be a little clever with your quizzing; children give refreshingly honest answers!
5. Don’t be shy. Talk to the head
Leadership is vital in a school. If you are able to relate with the headteacher from the start, and he or she impresses you, you’re off to a good start. Are they genuine? Do you warm to them? Will they do the best for your child in the years to come do you think? Will they get to know your child and back them? Can you build a relationship with the head?
A good open question to get a sense of whether your child will thrive there or not is; “What’s the right pupil for this school?” Try and find out if the school has a whole-child approach or if it’s more focused on academic achievement. You’ll already know which of these is best for your child’s personality. Don’t be afraid to ask about staff retention either. You’re entitled to know if the school’s a happy ship.
6. Don’t miss seeing anything
Most Open Days are ‘all access’ tours, so ask to see everything. Don’t be limited to a couple of token classrooms. See all the classrooms. How clean and tidy is the school? Is it noisy or calm? Are they using computers or iPads and how tired are the computers? Talk to the teachers in the classrooms you go into. Ask them what they see as the school’s strengths. If they seem awkward or unconfident, it could be a warning sign.
7. Don’t forget to look at the walls
Are the children’s efforts valued? What is the standard of work on display like? Does the display look fresh and cared for or has it been there for some time?
8. Don’t pass up any chance to talk to parents
If you’re visiting in school time and it crosses over with school pick-up, be brave. Start a conversation with parents waiting around. There’s nothing as revealing as what real parents have to say so try talk to them. Ask how they feel about the school. Why they chose it. What the school is good at. How happy they are with the school’s performance. You’ll also know from doing this if you’ll feel comfortable in that parent group.
Home time is a good opportunity too to observe the children as they come out. Are they tired and happy? Or are they tired and demotivated?
9. Don’t ignore the school’s social media
There aren’t many schools today that don’t have at least a Facebook page. Even though keeping up with social media isn’t top of most school’s priority lists, they’re the perfect place to get a sense of parents’ engagement and an idea of what’s going on at the school. Are there parents’ reviews on the Facebook page? You can rely on these to be genuine because Facebook make it difficult to remove negative reviews without a good reason.
10. Don’t go unprepared
Open Days are your opportunity to ask all the questions you want. So get a list written down. For example, how do children of different abilities fare at the school? What sports and clubs are on offer? How much time is dedicated to learning outside the classroom? How are they preparing children for today’s digital workplace? What are the class sizes? Pin down all the answers you need for your child.
11. Finally, don’t be afraid to trust your instincts…
Much like buying a house, you often get a feeling for whether a school’s right as soon as you arrive. Most people make their decision on their gut instinct about whether a school is ‘a good fit’ or not for their child. And there’s nobody who can argue with that. No one knows your child like you do…
Are you interested to visit the school?
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