Gentle persuasion

Open days are meant to help you choose the right school for your offspring, but there's much more to it than that, says Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online

Independent schools, over the last 10 years, have become far more professional in their dealings with prospective parents, and for many of them, the open day is now the pièce de résistance in an impressive marketing strategy. But parents, too, have grown more knowledgeable about schools, and more sophisticated in their appraisals.

Some families may sample five or six different open days before narrowing down their options. Many of them, according to Dick Davison at the Independent Schools Information Service, will be comparing independent schools with what the state sector has to offer for free, and this has increased the pressure on independent schools to create a favourable impression at their open days.

Open days are set-piece occasions, when schools show off their wares. For parents, they provide an excellent starting point in the hunt for the right school. Parents can tour the classrooms and perhaps sit in on lessons. They can assess displays of work, and may be able to watch musical or theatrical performances, or sporting events. They may be able to talk to pupils, and, where possible, note how they relate to their teachers.

Most importantly, they can begin to form an impression of the atmosphere and texture of school life. As June Robbins, a north London parent, says: "In the end, your reading of a school is almost instinctive." Sometimes, however, the school's PR can be off-putting. Rosie Winters was nonplussed by an Oxford independent school's recent open day, attended by so many prospective parents that the head gave his speech "every hour, on the hour". It felt like a cattle market, she said.

The professionally run open day ensures that visitors see a school only in its Sunday best. But for the beady-eyed parent, there is still the opportunity to glean vital knowledge about a school - such as what it puts on its walls. Mrs Winters crossed one independent school off her list largely because its displays of work failed to impress her.

"The advantage of the open day is that you are completely anonymous, and you can look without having to respond to someone," she says. "You can take your time, you can look at work, and, if you're lucky, you can talk to a pupil or two. You can also have a look at the other parents."

Modern parents have, in the main, learnt not to be unduly impressed by the quality of an independent school's facilities, says Dick Davison at Isis. "Our evidence is that parents are quite sophisticated about this, and when it comes to final choices, the things they go for are the things you can't see easily. The quality of a school is not dependent on the quality of its surroundings."

Isis believes that the open day on its own is not a sufficient basis on which to select a school. "We always advise parents to follow up an open day by visiting the school on an ordinary working day," says Davison. "It's important to try to get a feeling for the relationships between staff and pupils, and the relationships between pupils."

The school visit, which schools may arrange for individual families or for small groups, is a key part of the process of choosing a school. It will generally involve a discussion with the head teacher, and some kind of tour of the school, either with a member of staff or a pupil. This is an important opportunity for parents to gauge their feelings about the head teacher.

Ruth Wilson, an Oxford parent, says a central consideration for her is always "how much do I trust the head?" Some heads will barely let you get a word in edgeways. The crucial thing is to register what is going on in the classrooms: what is the atmosphere like, how do teachers and pupils get on together, do the students appear to be happy and stimulated?

Mrs Winters was favourably struck by an English lesson that she saw at an independent girls' school in Oxford. "The girls were participating in a discussion, and there was a great sense of interaction between staff and pupils, and a real feeling of energy," she says. "I'm not interested in facilities or tidiness: I'm interested in whether there's that buzz in the classrooms."