Schools lay bait in the parent trap

Parents want the best school. The schools want the best pupils. It's a courtship ritual
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Tis the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...and school open days. Independent schools are gearing up to throw open their doors to prospective parents: speeches are being written, buildings spruced up and pupils exhorted to be on their best behaviour.

Despite being something of a staged event, the open day can still be an invaluable fact-finding mission for parents, particularly those new to the independent education sector. About 60 per cent of the enquiries to the Independent Schools Council Information Service are from those with no previous experience of the independent education sector. For them, the open day is an informal introduction to fee-paying education.

But, cautions Fergus Rose of ACS Egham International School in Surrey, parents can sometimes sit in awe rather than probing the school about its suitability. "Parents must ask the challenging questions and keep asking them until they get the answers they need," says Rose. "Very few things are as important as your child's education."

Parents are advised to draw up a checklist of qualities they are looking for and then rate the school against each item on the list. The ideal open day takes place when the school is in full swing: open days that take place out of term time or on weekends can be a second-class experience.

Most open days involve a speech from the head and a tour of the premises. Parents considering the sixth form at ACS Egham can quiz an admissions officer from a local university about the school's International Baccalaureate programme. Potential pupils at Roedean get a taster for life at the girls' school on its themed Discovery Days: a "murder mystery" event in November will allow 9-12 year-olds to take part in forensic science, English and drama activities and spend time with existing pupils.

There is no better advert for, or warning against a school than its current student body. It's considered best practice for pupils to show parents around on the open day. If this isn't possible, parents should observe pupils as they move around the school: do they treat each other with friendliness and respect? How do they interact with teachers? Are they the kind of youngsters you would want your own child to grow into?

Approach the open day with a critical eye. The glossy prospectus might cite an impressive teacher/pupil ratio, but check how many desks are in the classrooms, says Peter Jennings of the educational consultancy, Gabbitas. It is often a more accurate guide to class sizes.

Ralph Lucas, editor of the Good School Guide, says the smallest things can speak volumes. "Bare walls, garish colours and unpleasant smells speak of a school whose aesthetic senses have been blunted, perhaps by excessive interest in examinations," says Lucas. "Take a look at a few workbooks: are the obvious mistakes being corrected? Are things that are really quite good being praised?"

Lucas also says it's essential to meet the head, whose character and interests will set the tone for the school. This may not be possible on an open day so interested parents should schedule a follow-up to get some one-on-one time.

It's also important to speak to teachers. Are they passionate about their subject? What provision is there for a child who is particularly gifted or has special educational needs? What subject options are available, at what age are languages taught and, given the obsession with league tables, what is the school policy on exam entrance?

For those parents considering boarding, it's vital to spend time with those who will be responsible for the after-school care of their child. "Open days can be very busy but a good school will carve out time and space so that parents can really spend time with the boarding house parents," says Steve King of Kingham Hill School in Oxfordshire. "Parents need to be comfortable with the people who will care for their child. They need to know this is a place where their child will be happy and flourish."

An open day should be a family outing but be aware that children sometimes have quite different views on what constitutes a good school. Parents may want to visit several schools on their own to draw up a shortlist of two schools they really like, and then allow their child to make the final decision. After all, it's your child who has to study there, not you.