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7 things to ask at school Open Days

Looked around a school and still can't judge if it suits your child? Rachel Dent, head of The Abbey School, gives her tips on what to see, do and ask.

I’ve been to two school Open Days recently and it struck me on both how opaque the experience was. I had two hours at each school and to say they were broad strokes was something of an understatement. Both included a head’s upbeat introduction; über-confident speeches from head boys and girls about how fantastic the school was and how all children would become happy, successful and quite possibly leader of the planet should they come here; some crowd-pleasing explosions in the chemistry lab; and a couple of students showing us around who had clearly been briefed to charm my daughter at all costs (they succeeded). It’s not a lot to go on when it’s your precious child’s next 7 years to decide.

So how to make these Open Days count a bit more, how to read between the lines, or expose potential issues? Only one thing for it – ask a head! Thank you to Rachel Dent, Head of leading girls’ school The Abbey in Reading for her insightful advice on what to ask, look out for, and do (see below) –  I’m definitely using it as ammunition when I go back to look again in October and hopefully it will help in your decision-making too. Over to you Rachel.

abbey school head teacher pink blazer pupils green uniform outside trees

  1. Talk to kids in the first year but also the sixth form

Parents want to know that their children can ebb and flow in their time at school – it’s not like they’re salmon just heading one way up the river, it’s a seven year journey. Particularly in terms of secondary schools where the changes are so profound, you are looking into your child’s eyes at 10 years old thinking about what’s right for them now, but you also need to think, ‘what are they going to be like and need at 18’? The best gauge is to make sure you meet at least one sixth former when you’re visiting a secondary school – this is what your child could become!


  1. Don’t stick to the script

A school that’s confident in its own skin will have you taken around by students who are not ‘briefed’ and can answer your questions honestly. Getting children to talk about their school unguardedly is not hard – start with the food in the canteen, and move on from there!  Work out a couple of key questions that you really want to know, it’s the quickest way to get an honest answer.


  1. How truthful is the head being?

Schools should be truthful about the kind of child that thrives in their environment. It’s not an honest appraisal to say that all kids thrive at everyschool – some children need a bigger school, others a smaller environment and all children have different needs and backgrounds. If they’re coming from a tiny primary school in a rural village, how will they cope in a large school getting the bus into town every day? At our school we’re academically selective and we’re a large school too. We’re not a one-size-fits-all and it’s important that schools acknowledge their idiosyncrasies.


  1. Consider the co-ed question carefully

No simple answer to this question and any school that didactically tells you that their way is the best is being disingenuous. I’ve worked at both co-ed and single sex schools and know the importance of doing your research on your options. Don’t be fixed on your options based on your own experiences – for example single sex education has moved on a lot.  I think if you have a boy, having girls in the class can actually be a helpful influence –  they are calm, they get the groups focused. However, it’s well known that there’s a huge maturity gap between 8-11 between boys and girls, so for girls a single sex environment can often be better in terms of their learning, and can provide a bespoke educational experience.


  1. What to ask about pastoral care

Ask the question – what happens when things go wrong? How does the school support parent and pupils in difficult times? Any head should be able to give concrete evidence. Ask for something that’s happened and how it’s been dealt with.  See how the school treats Year 7s – you’re still dealing with young children here, and they should be allowed to stay young. At The Abbey we let them play with skipping ropes for as long as they want, there’s no rush to grow up. If the head is too busy to talk on the night, there’s no reason why you can’t request a private meeting another time. If he or she is not available, there will be someone in a leadership role who can answer your questions.  Things to ask: the ethos of the school – how will you assure me my child will flourish?  What if my child starts to struggle with a subject, what is your bullying policy, how do you cope with mental health disorder? What is your social media and phone policy?  These are all reasonable questions and you can expect detailed answers.


  1. See the school on an ordinary day

Open Days or Evenings are big show-and-tells and give a broad flavour of a school but the best way to see a school is to go back on a normal day, because this is what your child is going to experience. You should have the opportunity to move informally around the school and if you’re not offered the chance to see the school in its usual working state, that’s when alarm bells should start to ring.


  1. Ask what the school can do for your child at 18

We know that the next generation will be working for at least 50 years and changing their career 20 times. Many of them will be entrepreneurs by the time they’re in their mid twenties. It’s safe to say that it’s no longer just about exam results, but giving the skillset to last a lifetime – how to give confidence when things are hard – to ask for help, to feel there are no limits, to understand individual strengths and weaknesses (we run psychometric tests here to gain a profile on our girls, so we can help where necessary). It’s also worth checking out the networking programme of the school – how active the alumni are in helping out the latest cohort.


  1. Front up

It’s easy to be influenced by other parents (who may have a very different child/cohort/set of circumstances to you) but the best thing to do if you have niggling doubts or have heard uncomfortable rumours, is to book that meeting with the school management. State what you’ve heard to the powers that be, and listen carefully to the reply. You don’t want to be commuting into work or sitting at home worrying every day for the next 7 years whether your child is happy. A head of a school should feel passionately about the welfare and happiness of every single pupil and be happy to reply frankly and honestly. If you feel that they’re skidding around an important issue, you probably have your answer right there.


Rachel Dent is the Head of The Abbey School, Reading. Check out our review:

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