How to get past the spin at school open days

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The Independent Online

Open days at independent schools are full of pizzazz and performance, giving students and teachers a chance to shout about what they love about their school, but it can be difficult for parents to see past the shiny surfaces and into an establishment's daily life.

So, with the "all singing, all dancing" approach, some wonderful facilities on display and fierce entry competition between schools, what can you do to ensure you choose the most suitable place for your child?

"Beware of the varnish and spin," says Niall Hamilton, senior admissions tutor at Marlborough College in Wiltshire. "There's always going to be spin, but the best way to really get to know what a school is like is to talk to the parents and to see the school under normal circumstances."

Open days are held throughout the year, but the hottest time for parents looking for a place for their child the following academic year is late September or early October. Most open days involve a tour from students, a talk from the head teacher, and a questions and answers session.

Think carefully before you go about the questions you want to ask and, if you're not brave enough to stick your hand up in public, most heads will be happy to have a quick word afterwards or to arrange a short meeting at a later date. Do speak to the head if you can because he or she is responsible for the ethos of the school. It's a good idea to ask them about their teaching policies, the academic focus, and their attitudes toward discipline.

Catherine Walters, an adviser at the education consultancy Gabbitas, recommends asking about how the pupils are streamed in lessons – say, by age or ability – what systems are in place to monitor academic achievement, and how the lessons are timetabled.

Another way of getting to the heart of the school is to chat with students. There will be plenty of pupils wandering around who have been roped in to take parents on tours of the grounds. The students know all there is to about the school, and will also give you a good indication of how pupils turn out – what universities they go on to and the jobs they enter.

Jan Shilling, head of admissions at St Teresa's School in Surrey, is full of praise for her sixth-form tour guides: "The girls are sparky and not arrogant. I can be confident they'll represent the school well without pointing out every knot in the skirting board. But equally they'll be happy to answer difficult questions and will agree to show a parent the boarding house boiler room if they ask to see it," she says.

If you are considering boarding schools, you will need to meet the teachers responsible for pastoral care because they're going to be responsible for your child 24 hours a day. It is also important to ask what happens at weekends, as schools have varying policies about how much care is provided.

It is probably not advisable to take your child with you on every open day visit as it can be quite a stressful occasion for them. Take them to the short list of about three or four if you can – and then look closely to how they respond to the place and the teachers.

"The teachers you meet should take an interest in your child, so look closely at how your child responds to them. You are looking for an attitude of warmth as well as authority," says Ian Summersgill, an information officer at the Independent Schools Council.

Most important, if you are at all worried about anything, then arrange a time to visit the school during normal school hours. It is important to see a school when it is buzzing with children hurrying to and from lessons. That will give you a real feel for the atmosphere and whether or not your child will be happy there. Schools understand that open days cannot give you this, and are always willing to arrange visits during the day.

Open days at independent schools are full of pizzazz and performance, giving students and teachers a chance to shout about what they love about their school, but it can be difficult for parents to see past the shiny surfaces and into an establishment's daily life. So, with the "all singing, all dancing" approach, some wonderful facilities on display and fierce entry competition between schools, what can you do to ensure you choose the most suitable place for your child?

"Beware of the varnish and spin," says Niall Hamilton, senior admissions tutor at Marlborough College in Wiltshire. "There's always going to be spin, but the best way to really get to know what a school is like is to talk to the parents and to see the school under normal circumstances."

Open days are held throughout the year, but the hottest time for parents looking for a place for their child the following academic year is late September or early October. Most open days involve a tour given by students, a talk from the headteacher and a question-and-answer session.

Think carefully before you go about the questions you want to ask and, if you're not brave enough to stick your hand up in public, most heads will be happy to have a quick word afterwards or to arrange a short meeting at a later date. Do speak to the head if you can because he or she is responsible for the ethos of the school. It's a good idea to ask them about their teaching policies, the academic focus and their attitudes toward discipline.

Catherine Walters, an adviser at the education consultancy Gabbitas, recommends asking how the pupils are streamed in lessons – say, by age or ability – what systems are in place to monitor academic achievement and how the lessons are timetabled.

Another way of getting to the heart of the school is to chat with students. There will be plenty of pupils wandering around who have been roped in to take parents on tours of the grounds. They know all there is to about the school, and will also give you a good indication of how pupils turn out – what universities they go on to and the jobs they enter.

Jan Shilling, head of admissions at St Teresa's School, in Dorking, Surrey, is full of praise for her sixth-form tour guides. "The girls are sparky and not arrogant," she says. "I can be confident they'll represent the school well without pointing out every knot in the skirting board. But equally they'll be happy to answer difficult questions and will agree to show a parent the boarding house boiler room if they ask to see it". If you are considering boarding schools, you will need to meet the teachers responsible for pastoral care because they're going to be responsible for your child 24 hours a day. It is also important to ask what happens at weekends, as schools have varying policies about how much care is provided.

It is probably not advisable to take your child with you on every open day visit as it can be quite stressful for them. Take them to a shortlist of about three or four if you can, then look closely to how they respond to the place and the teachers. "The teachers you meet should take an interest in your child, so look closely at how your child responds to them. You are looking for an attitude of warmth as well as authority," says Ian Summersgill, an information officer at the Independent Schools Council.

Most important, if you are worried about anything, arrange a time to visit the school during normal hours. It is important to see a school when it is buzzing with children hurrying to and from lessons. That will give you a real feel for the atmosphere and whether or not your child will be happy there. Schools understand that open days cannot give you this, and are always willing to arrange visits during the day.

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