Open Day: See what you want to see. Ask what you want to ask

Choosing a school for your child? Get answers to these questions, writes Diana Appleyard
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It's the time of year when independent schools are throwing open their doors to prospective parents. All will be putting on their best face - appointing the politest, most intelligent and articulate pupils to show parents round, and making sure any weaknesses in either curriculum or facilities are hidden.

So how do you, the parents, get behind the facade to find out whether this is really going to be the best school for your child?

Philip Lane-Clarke, an education consultant, says: "Don't just go on your impressions from the open day. It's essential that you make another appointment to see the school when it's `working' - when it isn't making such a conscious effort to impress."

But a lot can still be gleaned from your open-day visit. Number one: make sure you have your child with you. After all, he or she is the one who is going to be a pupil there. One problem with open days is that you can feel as if you are being herded about, surrounded by masses of other parents. So strike out on your own. Make sure you see what you want to see.

An important thing to look for is the general standard of tidiness. And how do the children behave? Are they courteous and confident? Don't be afraid to ask the pupils who are showing you around lots of questions about how they are enjoying their time at the school.

Mr Lane-Clarke says: "You can learn a lot from the body language of the children. How do they react when they meet a member of staff? Are they friendly, without being over-familiar? How do they move about the school? How much general noise is there?"

One of the most important questions to ask is about class size. Many parents choose the private sector because of that issue. In general, you should be looking for classes of fewer than 20 for core curriculum subjects, and fewer than that for additional subjects.

Find out whether children are streamed, or set. If they are put into streams, they may stay there for most subjects - marvellous if they are in the A stream, not so great if they are in the C. With setting, children are moved about; they could be in the A group for maths, but in B or C for English. This tends to avoid stigmatising them.

Ask about assessment. How often are children tested, and reports sent? How frequent are parents' meetings? Of course, look at exam results - and, if possible, ask for the results subject by subject. This helps you identify where a school's strengths and weaknesses lie. If it is a prep school, what help do they give for the eleven plus, if there are grammar schools in your area, and the Common Entrance?

Independent schools are open to inspection by Ofsted. You can ask whether they have been inspected, either by Ofsted or by one of the independent schools' own systems. The HMC has an inspection mechanism and so does the Independent Schools Council. You may ask to see a copy of the report. In terms of the curriculum, many schools offer a wide breadth of choice at GCSE and A-level - but ask how many pupils, for example, really did Spanish A-level. Science is often a weak point, so ask how many pupils took straight chemistry, for example.

In a secondary school, ask about the sixth form. Some private schools have a small sixth form, so you need to consider whether this will be the right environment for your child. What rights and privileges will they enjoy? How much freedom will they have?

The independent sector tends to excel at sport, so it's highly likely you will be shown extensive sporting facilities. "A key question to ask is: what are the facilities for those who don't get into the first team? Make sure there is plenty of support for children who don't necessarily excel," Mr Lane-Clarke says

Resources are important: what are the music and art rooms like? What provision is there for drama, and how many extracurricular activities are on offer? Even schools that dedicate themselves to academic achievement should devote time to other subjects - not just at lunch time, or after school hours.

If you're looking at boarding as an option, make sure you establish a rapport with the house parents. Joan Sadler is a former head of Cheltenham Ladies' College. She says: "Look at the practical aspects. How far are the houses from the main school? Where do they eat? Is there provision for study in the house itself?

"It's almost like looking for a house for yourself. You know whether you feel comfortable there. It's also important that your child has private space; at a younger age, perhaps in a cubicle as part of a bigger room of five or six girls, and then higher up the school it's very important they either have their own study bedroom, or share with one other."

Little things are also important; can children bring their own duvets? What access do they have to a phone? When can they change out of uniform? How are you, the parent, kept informed of your child's activities?

It's also important to ask about discipline, and issues such as television- watching. Ask what activities are available within the house after school hours. Are they voluntary - and how do pupils feel about them? Also, let your child ask the questions they want to ask.

Find out about the responsibilities your child will take on, and at what age. How much contact is there between the sixth form and younger children?

Finally, when you leave - having exhausted all these questions - take a copy of the school magazine, which will tell you just as much as the prospectus. And speak to your child. He or she may have gained a very different impression from yourself.