Most parents spend months, if not years, deciding which school is right for their children. This is why a school visit is so important and why parents should spend time thinking about the questions they want to ask, which in my experience can be broken down into two categories.
The first questions are the ones that will be expected. The answers are still useful, but remember that schools are used to answering them. That doesn't mean they will be untruthful - far from it. But for teachers, the visit is an opportunity to sell the school to you as parents, and naturally they will want to make a good impression.
Typical questions usually include:
- How do you settle unhappy or anxious children?
- What is the child to teacher ratio?
- What are the lunches like and how do you ensure children are eating properly?
- Who do I see if my child is having a problem?
- How do you deal with bullying or bad behaviour?
- How do you support high achievers or strugglers?
- What extra-curricular clubs are on offer?
These questions are worth asking but staff will have been preparing for this day for weeks. The school will be looking its best, it will be clean and tidy and the children will be on their absolute best behaviour. So you need to dig deeper.
A second category of forensic questions will offer you an insight into how the school really runs, and what it is like when no one is looking.
Good questions to ask, some of which should be asked of pupils, would include:
Is this what the school usually looks like? This question is best asked of children. Does the school always look like this? How often are the displays changed? A school can always look presentable for an open day but children need stimulation and encouragement at all times - having their work on display or being able to learn something whilst standing in the lunch queue is more than just background. It shows how much a school cares about the little things.
How does the school communicate with parents? You want to know that you will be contacted as soon as possible if your child needs you. Make sure that there are a variety of different channels in place and that the school will try more than once to get in touch. How is information sent home with your child? Is there a weekly newsletter? Do teachers regularly email parents with updates? Is there a special login on the school's websites where parents can see photos of the day just gone (this is wonderful for stimulating conversation with children after pick up)? Is social media used effectively?
What will I learn about my child from his/her school reports? Reports can be perfunctory and formulaic. As a parent, what you want is detailed information about your child's performance. Knowing how academic and pastoral achievements are communicated will give you a good idea of how much you will be able to discover about your child without any help deciphering what it all means!
May I see some exercise books from last year? Most schools will put exercise books out on the tables for prospective parents to look through. These, though, will be the best, chosen to create the best impression of the school. Ask to see other books, from other students. Ask to see last year's books. This will give you a much more rounded idea of how the school works.
Which areas of the school do you feel less safe in? Another question to ask children. It's good to know whether there are any 'no go' areas of the school that perhaps the younger children steer clear of. Is this where the 'big kids' hang out? Is it where the bullies are? Or is it that it's dirty or smelly, and no want wants to be there?
The final question is often the most telling one to ask teachers:
Are you happy working here? It is highly unlikely that anyone will expect this question to be asked - and equally unlikely that anyone will come out with an outright 'no'. Watch for body language. Are teachers open, happy and unashamedly enthusiastic when they tell you how much they enjoy working at the school? Or are they more reserved?
A school can have acres of impressive wall displays, paint-fresh classrooms and mountains of fancy equipment. But if your child's teacher isn't happy, they won't make your child happy. And if you suspect that mood is common among the staff, be prepared to make your visit to this school your last.
Danuta Tomasz is assistant director of education, Europe for Cognita, which has some 70 schools in the UK and abroad.