Mechanics of choosing a good school

The less formal an open day, the better it is when it comes to helping parents decide where to send their offspring for the best all-round educational experience, says Gabriella Bennett.

For most parents, school open days are an opportunity to experience what life and learning is like for pupils before a decision is made on where to enrol their child. The visit serves not only to provide information on teaching methods and the curriculum, but whether a school’s approach to the young people in its care aligns with the preferences of their legal guardians.

In order to get the most from an open day, educators believe that preparation is key. That, and the ability to gauge enthusiasm from current pupils, will help parents discern whether a school is suitable, says David Gray, principal at Edinburgh’s Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools.

“Most parents think they cannot judge schools because they are not educators,” he adds. “Yet they are parents, and, in accompanying their children, they will quickly pick up the environment to which their offspring are best suited.

“The genuine courtesy and insight provided by pupils on an open day tour are the best indication of a school’s health and its outlook. The extent to which staff are prepared to be transparent and provide honest information is also worth looking out for.”

Prospective parents may be impressed by outstanding facilities, Gray says, but these do not necessarily equate to a great school.

“It is the quality of relationships between teachers and children which matters, and this can be observed in classrooms and on a tour by the way in which staff interact with those looking around the school for the first time,” he adds. “Enthusiasm is everything. Schools thrive on it.”

At St George’s School, in the Ravelston district of the capital, head Anne Everest believes every school day acts as a potential open day. “While formal open days are useful showcases for independent schools, parents are advised to visit a school on an ordinary working day, when they can see classrooms in action for learning — and not just for show,” she says.

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“It is also helpful if a visit can be arranged so that would-be parents can see the normal lunchtime and playground practices, which can often reflect the ethos of the school effectively.”

Devising a list of questions to bring along to an open day could prove helpful, advises Andrew Hunter, headmaster at Merchiston Castle School in the Edinburgh suburb of Colinton. Requesting a meeting in advance with specific subject teachers to talk through any specific concerns has also proved beneficial in the past.

“We would advise parents to section questions to help their information gathering on the day, perhaps under sections such as academic issues, boarding or day issues, pastoral care and finance,” he adds.

Beware those schools which stage-manage the day — you want to see usual lessons taking place

“There are many things to consider, all of which are important if your son or daughter is to thrive in his or her ‘home away from home’.”

Aberdeen’s Albyn School holds no fewer than four annual open mornings throughout the year to ensure parents do not miss out.

These mornings, held in January, June, September and November, involve speeches from the headmaster, the senior management team, pastoral staff and nursery managers. “Our prospective parents are then treated to wonderful musical performances from pupils of various ages,” says headmaster Ian Long.

“Following this, senior prefects and prefects conduct tours to the preferred areas of the school. Parents can observe lessons, speak to class teachers and learn about the school with current pupils, some of whom have been at the school since the age of two. Others who have joined the school at various different stages are also involved to give a true picture of how the school runs on a regular working day.”

Parents are then taken to the school hall, explains Long, where they have the opportunity to speak to various members of staff from the nurseries, lower school and upper school. This breadth of approach, he believes, is key to parents feeling satisfied with understanding how the schools are run.

Mike Jeffers, head of admissions at Glenalmond College in Perthshire, believes it is well worth following up an open day visit with an additional meeting. He feels that this approach is particularly effective to understand how a school is run “off duty”.

“Hopefully the open day will enable you to see the school in action,” he says. “But beware those which completely stage-manage the day — you want to be able to see something of the normal operation and the usual lessons taking place.

“Use this occasion to talk to some of the current pupils. At Glenalmond, our pupils are our best ambassadors, and we very deliberately do not tell them what to say — we want parents to get a true picture of life at the school.

“If you are looking for a full boarding school, check that the school’s definition of full boarding, as opposed to flexi or weekly boarding, matches yours.”