- Does the school feel nurturing?
- Do the pupils seem happy?
- Is work of all standards on display?
- Is there a variety of extra-curricular activities on offer?
- Do teachers know every pupil’s name?
- Do pupils look engaged?
- Do pupils appear smart?
- Do pupils interact well with staff?
- Is the school well-equipped?
- Is the building well cared-for?
How do you find the ideal school for your child? In the state sector your choice may be limited by location but it is still worth going to see all your local schools, so you can prioritise the ones you would prefer. In the private or the state sector, you should be looking for the same signs when assessing a school.
Build your own opinion
The views of parents and children already at the school should not be discounted but it is important to judge every establishment yourself and think how it will benefit your child.
“I recommend parents go round any school with an open mind. On the day, temporarily disregard anything you’ve heard reputation-wise,’ says Liat Hughes Joshi, author of parenting books including New Old-Fashioned Parenting (Summersdale).
“That’s not to say that you shouldn’t take others’ views into account but go to the open day with a blank slate and you might be surprised. Schools can improve — or indeed decline — fairly quickly these days, with the arrival of a sparkling new head or interventions brought in to turn around previously failing schools.’
Hughes Joshi also recommends judging the school on its entire staff and not just the head. “If staff are leaving after a year or two, try to find out why. And don’t be too taken in by an impressive head teacher, either. Of course, this is a significant factor but they can and do leave. If this is the main thing you like about a school, you could be disappointed if they move on at the end of the first year.”
It is hard to define the characteristics of a warm, nurturing primary school but you should come away with the feeling the children were enjoying their time there and were in a safe and supportive environment.
“Look for a degree of warmth,’ says Hughes Joshi. “Look at the children at work and play and see if they appear happy. It’s a good sign if the head or other teacher taking you round seems to know the names of the children they see. I’d also look at the standard of the work being shown to you. I’d be concerned if only the pupils with perfect handwriting or stellar pictures for their age got to see their work up on the wall.”
Finally, consider what goes on outside the classroom, as this is a good indication of the commitment of the whole education team to the development and happiness of their pupils.
“See whether there are enticing lunchtime or after-school clubs on offer. If some of these are run by teachers and not outside organisations, it’s a great indication that the staff are really engaged with school life,” says Hughes Joshi.
As with a primary school, you should get the feeling the pupils and staff at a secondary school want to be there.
“Look out for happy, engaged pupils who don’t seem to just be ‘saying the right thing’ for the open day,” says Hughes Joshi. “Think about whether they come across as natural in their responses or are just repeating staged answers.
“You should also look for evidence of strong, warm relationships between teachers and pupils. If you catch any off-the-cuff conversations between them, see whether the pupils appear confident but respectful of the teachers or quite intimidated.”
You can also tell a lot from the building itself and how well it is equipped. “Not every school has the funds for immaculately smart buildings but it should look reasonably well-cared for and graffiti-free.’”
It is also worth asking how many laptops are available in relation to the pupil count, checking how well stocked the library is and seeing if the science laboratories have up-to-date equipment.
And think about what you do not see or hear mentioned, as much as what you do. “At an open day, it’s easy to focus on what you are being told and shown but sometimes what is missing is just as important. So, for example, does the head talk a lot about their high-performing sports teams but miss out other areas? Thinking this way can prompt useful questions.’”