How to get the best out of an Open Day

The ‘Open Day’ is dead… long live the ‘Open Day’!

You are facing one of the most daunting decisions of your life – who to trust to educate and nurture your precious bundle of stardust.  And one of the best ways of trying to initially evaluate a school no longer exists – the ‘traditional’ Open Day.  How can you possibly get a feel for a school without actually visiting it?

Virtual Open Events are now how most, if not all, schools are inviting you to see what they have to offer.  With presentations from the Head, senior members of staff, maybe the Heads of School etc, they are all beginning to follow a very similar format with little to distinguish them.  It’s only when you actually visit a school that you get a real feel for the place.  I often liken the process of selecting a school to that of buying a house – within 10 minutes of setting foot in the place, you’ll know if it’s for you or not.  Of course, that first 10 minutes usually includes meeting the Head as well and so much of a school’s ethos comes from how it is led.  

How can you really assess a school ‘virtually’?  Let’s face it, all independent schools provide an excellent education; small class sizes and dedicated staff all contribute to some really amazing outcomes for our youngsters. Copious articles in the news have all highlighted how the remote learning offerings from schools in the independent sector have been far superior to the majority of their state funded counterparts. But how can you establish how one school might fit your family better than another if you can’t see it?  There may be some practical aspects to think about such as location and cost.  Or it may be the extra curricular offerings such as those schools that specialise in elite sports or performing arts.  You may be adamant that you want your children to go to a single sex school, so you can strike out all the co-ed offerings or you might need the flexibility that a school which offers ‘flexi boarding’ can give you.  All of these factors can help you narrow down your initial choice.  Then it’s time for a little research – ISI Inspection reports can prove invaluable, but take them with a pinch of salt, especially if the Head has changed since the last report; a school can change dramatically with a change of leadership.

So now you are down to your last 2 or 3 – how do you choose if you can’t actually see them in action?  Meet the Head.  How a school is led has a real impact on its character and spirit.  You can get a real feel for this by talking to the Head and this is something that can be done remotely.  Don’t rely on the virtual Open Day pre-recorded segment from the Head, ask for a personal video call.  If they don’t have time for you, what does that tell you about them?  

Your first contact will usually be with the Admissions Team – interestingly over the years, (and during my own school searches) I’ve found that the way I have been received by admissions staff is a fairly good indicator of the rest of the school. I’ve since learnt that this is down to how much the staff are valued by the rest of the school (they are, after all, making sure that the school continues to have an income stream!)  A valued team is a happy team and that comes across in spades to prospective parents.  It’s very difficult to sell a place that makes us unhappy, however we might try.

As lockdown continues to relax, many schools are now finding ways to offer some form of actual visit but they certainly aren’t what they were.  A quick wander round will give you some idea of the geography of the place but no longer can we pop into a lesson to ask the children what they love about school the most or ask them what the food is really like.   It’s a really difficult balance to strike – schools really want to welcome prospective parents to visit but first and foremost have to ensure the health and wellbeing of their pupils. However, I would see this as a huge positive from the school as well so don’t be put off if admissions staff ask you to wait in your car before you have your tour or that you no longer get shown around by pupils and remember that how a school looks after it’s pupils now will show you how they will also look after your bundle of stardust too.

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