Come in and have a look

School open days are highly polished affairs. But are they more than a charade? Caitlin Davies finds out
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The Independent Online

Ten years ago, when a parent wanted their child to attend a private school, they went ahead and made the decision themselves. If the parent attended an open day, their offspring were often left at home. But today, both parents and their children are taking advantage of increasingly professional school open days, many of which are held in the summer term. And children are definitely welcome. One of the most frequently asked questions on the Stonar girls school's website is: "Should I bring my daughter on our first visit to the school?" The answer is "yes" and the school even provides a crèche for younger family members.

Ten years ago, when a parent wanted their child to attend a private school, they went ahead and made the decision themselves. If the parent attended an open day, their offspring were often left at home. But today, both parents and their children are taking advantage of increasingly professional school open days, many of which are held in the summer term. And children are definitely welcome. One of the most frequently asked questions on the Stonar girls school's website is: "Should I bring my daughter on our first visit to the school?" The answer is "yes" and the school even provides a crèche for younger family members.

Most of the UK's 2,400 independent schools have traditionally held an annual "show off" open day on a Saturday in the autumn term. But summer open days (or mornings) have now become the norm, says Ruth Steadman, commercial manager at the London and South-east branch of ISCIS, the Independent Schools Council Information Service. Open days today are highly polished PR exercises, whose overall aim is to impress, and many independent schools have hired their own marketing managers. The attitude of parents at open days has changed too. "Parents are more inquisitive now, especially first-time buyers who didn't go to independent schools themselves," says Steadman.

ISCIS research has shown that, while school facilities are important, parents want to know that their child will be able to achieve his or her full potential. In an ISCIS survey of 5,500 parents, respect between pupils was rated as the main quality parents look for, followed by close attention to an individual child's wellbeing. Good manners rated highly, as did small classes, the use of IT and a firm code of discipline.

So when prospective parents visit school open days, they have a lot on their mind. Most tend to visit at least three different schools, usually within 90 miles of home. An open day normally runs like this: parents congregate in a meeting room, the headteacher gives a few words of welcome, followed by individual tours around the school led by a present pupil. After seeing the school facilities, and various departmental displays of work, the day ends with cake and tea and a chance to talk to staff.

This is how the day is run at Wellington College, Berkshire, where on 11 June prospective pupils are encouraged to come along with their parents. Sheila Sparks, the registrar, says that some parents are discouraged from attending an open day because they think they will only be shown the veneer of their school, "but we're happy for them to ask to be taken anywhere they want - the kitchen, the laundry...We've got nothing to hide!"

To take full advantage of an open day, try to make sure you have a chance to chat with pupils. Other issues to consider are: how well qualified the staff are, what the turnover rate is like and whether discipline is what you hope for or expect. The visit is a chance for some detective work too; look below the surface, read the noticeboards, ask to have a look at the year book.

One of the main benefits of open days is that parents can have a good nose around and, in the process, remain relatively anonymous. Joanna Preston, marketing assistant at Clifton College, in Bristol, says: "It's less intimidating to visit during an open morning, when parents and children can get a feel for the place before sitting a test or scholarship exam. It's ideal for a first-time buyer and those who are not a hundred per cent sure."

Visitors to Clifton need to register in advance for the 14 May open morning because the school tries to tailor open mornings to individual needs, for example by matching a sporty child with a sports scholar for a guided tour of the school. "Our mornings are held on a normal Saturday school day and, when the bell rings, there can be mayhem, but parents quite like that," says Preston. "It's a working day. There's nothing false about it." Parents have quite specific questions they want to ask, such as the support available for a child with dyslexia, or what the music facilities are.

Prospective parents at Sibford School in Oxfordshire also know what they want to ask, whether it's questions about how "flexi-boarding" works, provision for special needs or what the SAT results are. Maggie Foster, PA to the deputy head, says: "We have a lot of pupils who come here via word of mouth and, while parents have probably seen our prospectus, the open morning is a chance to see the school for themselves. They are encouraged to bring their child with them. After all it's the child who will make up his or her mind about whether they like it." Sibford's open morning is 16 May.

As well as bringing their children with them, parents are inspecting schools much further in advance, attending open days one or two years before their child might attend. Steadman says this is partly because of the pressure on places, especially in London, and also because sending a child to a private school is an important financial decision. A junior school (for those aged seven to 11 or 13) costs up to £2,900 a term for day students and up to £4,600 for boarding. The fees for senior schools are as high as £4,000 for day students and £6,100 for boarders. So parents want to know how fee-paying schools compare with what the state sector has to offer.

Certain schools even do boarding tasters. Priors Field School in Surrey runs two "Boarding is Fun" weekends, one on 14/15 May this year. "They are a great opportunity for girls aged between 9 and 11 to try the boarding experience," says Jenny Dwyer, the headmistress. "We also find the students who have attended are so familiar with the school they settle very quickly when they arrive." At the weekend, various activities are on offer - such as drama, music, art, games, craft and, weather permitting, outdoor adventure. All the girls need to bring is a duvet and a toothbrush.

However, while open days and taster weekends are useful and fun, parents should always visit a school on a normal working day. This will mean the students feel less on show and you can get a feel for the noise level, watch the children at work and observe the interaction between pupils and staff. "Our open day on 18 June is a celebration of the whole year," says Elizabeth Garner, head of The Perse School for Girls junior school in Cambridge. "The classrooms are bedecked and there are all manner of things to see and do, whether poetry recitals or Scottish country dancing. But while you do get a flavour of a place on an open day, there is no substitute for visiting a school in session. That's when you get its heartbeat. That's when you see it in action."

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