There are many ways to find out about schools you're considering but all the Ofsted report reading, league table scouring and asking of other parents can't rival taking a good look around a school in person.
Most schools hold open days in the autumn and summer terms as an easy way to allow parents to view what they have to offer en masse. Headteachers will be keen to show their establishment at its shiniest and best. Your mission here is to look beyond the obvious and work out how things really operate on a normal day, when the pupils (and teachers) haven't all been forced to comb their hair and adopt smiles wider than the school football pitch.
Here we look at how you can make the most of your school visits.
When is the right time to start attending open days?
This depends on what type of approach you take to such decisions as a family and how much deliberating you will need to do.
Some parents choosing secondaries do find it useful to visit schools when their child is in year 5 rather than waiting until the last minute in year 6 (you'll be filling application forms in during the autumn term). This allows a chance to look around without a child in tow, more time to think things through and for a second visit if necessary with your child.
Note though that a few schools request only parents of year 6 children attend open days in the autumn, due to issues with overcrowding.
How can I find out about open day dates and details?
For state schools (including free schools and academies) you should be able to find a list of open days on your local authority's website in the education section.
If not, or for independent schools, it's simply a case of checking out individual schools' websites. Schools might advertise open days in local papers or magazines so keep an eye on these too.
Should my child go with me?
At some stage you should definitely take your son or daughter to schools you're seriously considering but if you're not yet sure about one, it might be wiser to attend without them on an initial recce.
Janette Wallis, of the Good Schools Guide, explains why: "Our advice would be not to take your child to visit a school that you could not bear them to attend - either because of location, ethos or results - or which they have little chance of being admitted to." There's simply too much scope for disappointment if they fall in love with a fabulous school that you have no hope of getting a place at.
But overall, yes, for realistic options, it's very wise to take them with you – it's their prospective school after all. Even if you know for sure that they will attend a particular school, it's still worth an open day visit so they can see their future school
Okay this sounds a bit silly, but do we need to dress up for the occasion?
Understandably many parents do worry about making the right impression but state school admission criteria are pretty set in stone and nowhere will you see mention of what a child's mum or dad wore to the open day (or indeed anything else about you)! There is no scope at all for this to be taken into consideration when places are allocated.
When it comes to private schools, things can be less clear cut. But frankly, if there is still an educational establishment out there that judges a child's suitability based on whether their parents wore BHS, Boden, or Burberry, would you really want them to go there!? If you're unsure and want to feel comfortable, 'smart casual' is the usual order of the open day.
If there is one bit of advice we would heed though, it's to wear vaguely sensible shoes – open days for secondary schools might well involve a lot of walking around and whilst taking a tumble in high heels down the steps into the hall, for the headteacher's talk, might not lose you a place, it could leave you feeling rather embarrassed!
What should I look out for on an open day?
Here are some things to consider when viewing schools:
1. What's on offer for a child like yours?
Janette advises sticking with what's relevant to them: "If your child hates music, then a fabulous orchestra is jolly, but not important. If they are academic, how will they be stretched? If they are sporty, find out what games are played, how often and against whom. If your child will need help for a special educational need, you want to know the school can provide for them. What will they have to miss out on to receive special help?"
2. What's the general atmosphere like?
Janette has visited and reviewed countless schools for the Good Schools Guide and says: "We like to see pupils with a sense of purpose - in the best schools there is this sense of purposefulness. Not silence, but a quiet bustle - a sense of direction." So loitering in the corridors noisily or trudging about looking bored is out, walking as if they're relatively and reasonably keen to get to their next class is not.
3. What's your impression of the pupils?
This was crucial for Victoria, a mum of one, "I asked myself would I be happy with my son hanging around with the younger ones all day, and to turn into the older ones. It's very telling. At the school he now attends the children were generally lovely, polite and a nice balance of confidence but not arrogant and that was the clincher for me. They were kids I'd want him to be with, both in the classroom and socially."
Generally, do pupils appear smart and well-behaved or are they wrestling in the loos and smoking round the back of the building?
4. Don't just look at the pupils, chat to them!
Engage the children in conversation - do they talk proudly and positively of the place (and sound like they mean it)? Try to talk to any pupils (within reason), not just those who are helping to show parents around. Ask them what they think of the school, the head, the staff - they are usually honest!
5. What do you make of the head and senior leadership team?
An inspirational headteacher can make an enormous difference to a school and influences its ethos greatly. Equally, so can a weak one. What do you make of their vision and attitude towards the pupils?
What are their priorities in the school's ethos? Is it about encouraging children to be 'rounded', make the best of themselves, whatever their ability, or are things very focused on the highest performers' achievements? Does the ethos of the school match your priorities as a family?
Of course, heads can and do change jobs so have a think about the deputy and their other senior leadership team colleagues too.
Even if you don't get a chance to speak to any of the senior staff in person, make an effort to attend any speech they make – there's invariably a headteacher's talk in the school hall during an open day.
6. Check out the noticeboards and displays
Are there plenty of activities and extra-curricular clubs? Is work displayed in classrooms and corridors? If so, does it look engaging, interesting and recent?
7. Look at the state of the buildings and facilities
Are they well-kept and clean, or ridden with litter and graffiti? If it's all in a poorly-kept state, that doesn't mean a school is dreadful but it can be indicative of problems to watch out for in other areas, such as discipline or funding.
Are there exciting facilities for the sort of extra-curricular activities your child is into? If they're sporty but there are no pitches, courts and a pool on site, where do they go - perhaps they have use of nearby sports centres? Are there purpose-built rooms for music, science labs and the like?
A quick visit to the loos can be surprisingly insightful too – are they clean and ordered or untidy and, again, covered with graffiti? Likewise the dinner hall – is what's on offer vaguely healthy and appealing?
8. How do the teachers interact with the pupils and vice versa?
How do the teachers treat pupils? Are they shouting to keep them in order? Does the head seem to know many of the pupils personally? Do the pupils all develop a nervous twitch as he or she passes in the corridor or is there an affectionate respect for him/ her?
9. Find out about the structure of the school
How are the classes organised and do children get streamed or setted by ability? On what basis does this happen (it might be their year 6 SATS results, CAT tests or further tests when they enter the secondary school)? Is there scope to move sets or streams and if so, how often does this happen?
Are there tutor groups, heads of year, buddy systems? How do they work? These can make all the difference when settling in at a larger secondary and to general pastoral care. Who would you or your child go to if you/ they have problems or issues at school?
10. How does the school communicate and interact with parents?
Secondary schools will typically have less interaction with you compared to their primary but there should still be some! How many parents' evenings are there a year? How often are written reports issued? Is there a weekly or monthly newsletter for parents?
Are there other opportunities to get involved, such as a Parent Teacher Association?
Afterwards, discuss what you saw with your child, assuming they did attend, whilst it's fresh in your minds. Did you get a good feel for the school or do you think you need to go back? If so, it might be worth trying to attend a tour on a non-open-day day which can be more insightful still.
Overall, can you see your child going to the school and being happy and thriving? If they were starting there next Monday morning, would the idea fill you with dread or excitement?
10 smart questions for open days:
Not everyone will be comfortable asking all of these (especially of pupils who might not be ready for the Spanish Inquisition!) but here are some ideas for questions to pose in order to help with your school choice sleuthing.
- How is bullying dealt with? (Denying there is any at all is a red flag – it is very unlikely this is the case - how it's managed is what matters).
- Would you be happy to send your own children here?
- How is poor behaviour managed?
- How are pupils who have achieved something special rewarded?
- How long have you taught here for? What about your colleagues – do they tend to stay here for many years or is there high staff turnover?
- Does everybody get a chance to be part of activities such as school plays, sports teams and workshops or just a few? How are pupils selected for these?
- If you could change one aspect of your school, what would it be?
- What is the best thing about your school?
- Do your friends mostly live close to the school or are the pupils from a very wide area? How do they find this if the latter.
- How much homework do you get and what happens if you don't do it?
Join the discussion: what are your experiences of school open days?
Did you find them useful and representative of the school your child ended up at?