What Should you Look for, or ask, at a School Open Day?

Are you just starting to think about choosing your child’s first school? Not sure what to look for, or what to ask when you visit? This article should help!

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A lot of schools will run tours of the school by the oldest pupils. This can be off-putting to parents initially, who may prefer to be shown around by a staff member, however this is  unique opportunity to find out about the school from some of the most important people  the children themselves! Children tend to be brutally honest, whereas staff members will tend to be more diplomatic. Ask them questions and make full use of the opportunity! On your tour, ask to see lesser covered areas, such as the changing rooms or pupil toilets, the condition of these can give you a good indication of the school’s views. For instance, pupil toilets that are well kept (although they may be old) and brightly painted to appeal to children is usually the sign of a caring school.

A good open day will also allow you to speak with the headteacher and other teachers at the school, even better if you get to view a lesson in progress. Here, really observe how the teachers interact with the children and how the children respond. What they say and do to the children is of far more importance than what they say to you!

The following is a list of questions you may want to ask, both the teachers and children, at an open day:

*Do you enjoy working/going here?
*What are you most proud of about your school?
*What do you think the school could be better at?
*Do you have any plans to improve certain things in the future?
*What is the biggest challenge your school is facing at the moment?
*How do you cope with difficult, or unwanted, behaviour from children?
*What is your view on rewarding children for good behaviour, or for attendance?
*What is your view on starting age for summer born children?
*How do you help settle an anxious starter?
*What do you do if a child is very upset at school?
*How do you deal with friendship issues and bullying?
*Do you have a peer mentor, or buddy scheme? (pairing older children with new starters)
*What sport and physical activity do children do?
*What are your school lunches like? Can I see a typical week’s menu?
*How much time do children spend outside every day? How does this change as
they get older?
*How much time do children spend sitting still and learning? (e.g. at a table, or at a computer)
*What is the school library like?
*What does an average school day look like?
*What opportunities are there for children who like art, music and drama?
*What is your SEND and pastoral care provision like?
*What do you offer for ‘gifted’ children, or high achievers?
*What support do you provide for children who struggle academically?
*What is your view on standard assessments?
*What are the school values, or ethos?
*What is the school’s opinion of homework? When does it get set, how much and what sort of thing?
*What is your teacher retention rate like? How long have your current staff been here for?
*Do you have an ‘open door policy’ if parents have any concerns?
*Do you know how many siblings of current pupils will be applying this year?
*How many children are in an average class? If this is a larger number, how do
you make sure they each get the individual attention they need?
*What clubs and extra-curricular activities do you run?
*What do you think parents would say about the school?
*What do you think pupils would say about the school?
*Do you think your current official rating is a good reflection of the school? If not, why?
*Does your school have an active PTA?
*What opportunities do you have for parents to get involved with the school?
*Do you offer school trips and visits? If so, can you let me know what they have been in the past?

Don’t feel embarrassed by asking too many questions, however if you are conscious of time, or of monopolising a tour, ask the headteacher if you can send them some questions to answer via email, or speak with them via the phone at a later date. Usually the response to this request is a pretty good indicator of the head’s attitude, however, do bear in mind that most are incredibly stretched and although they may want to spare you the time to answer all of your questions as thoroughly as possible, it may just not be possible.

Warning Signs to Spot on a School Visit
School visits aren’t just about looking for the good points and asking the right questions, they also give an opportunity to raise alarm bells. There are certain things that you really  don’t want to see, these include:

*Quiet classrooms – learning at infant and primary shouldn’t be quiet, that doesn’t mean it should be chaotic, but you should expect talking and laughter. If a classroom is quiet it may be an indication that the school are expecting too much compliance and age inappropriate behaviour from the children, it can also be a sign that they aren’t as engaged with their learning.
*Few wall displays of children’s work – schools should be proud of the work of their pupils and want to display artwork and project work, even if it makes the walls look cluttered and non-colour-coordinated. Classrooms that lack in children’s work should raise alarm bells.
*Unhappy children – this one goes without saying. Do the children look sad, or stressed? Or are they relaxed and smiling?
*Stressed teachers – again, another obvious point. Do teachers generally look happy at work? Or do they appear very tense? Or shouty?
*No mess – learning isn’t neat and tidy. A classroom where everything is put away and looks pristine raises suspicion. You don’t want utter devastation, but somewhere in  Between shows a good balance
*Lack of outdoor play spaces or equipment – outdoors is where children relax, what does the school offer them?
*Children being disrespectful to each other – what is the general feel of the school? Are children polite to each other as well as teachers? Do they hold doors open for each other, or help when another drops something or falls over? A lack of compassion towards each  other is often indicative of a lack of compassion and respect towards children.

If your child is starting school soon and you would like to learn how to choose the best school, how to prepare them (and you), or know how to settle your child into their school, then my new ‘The Starting School’ book will be perfect for you! You can learn more and order HERE in the UK or HERE in the rest of the world.

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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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