Open days: When sixth formers are a secret weapon

Independent schools are working hard to woo prospective parents, reports Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

No sooner has the new school year begun, than the pressure is on to maximise next year's intake. Nowhere is this felt more acutely than in the independent sector, where fees make up the overwhelming proportion of a school's income.

So annual events in early autumn, when school gates are thrown open to the public with the aim of snaring future customers, are key phases in any school's calendar – even if some teachers wince at having to put on a show so early in the academic year.

"Open days provide a vital opportunity for a school to showcase itself," says Maureen Bosch, external relations manager for the Girls' Day School Trust, which represents 29 leading independent girls' schools around the country.

Increased competition between schools, and a growing expectation among parents to peer ever deeper into more aspects of school life, has led some schools to expand the range of events they stage. "It is a rare school that limits what it does to just one open day or evening," says Bosch.

Many lay on tours of the school during lesson time, dropping into classrooms along the way. Some also offer "taster days" for children to get a feel for teaching styles and activities across the curriculum.

All these elements are in the mix at Surbiton High School, on the southern outskirts of London. Over the next couple of months, the school will open up on six occasions to prospective parents and their children. After a talk from the head, there's a tour of the site hosted by sixth formers.

"Our sixth formers are our best source of knowledge," says Helen Morgan, one of the deputy heads. "We've had parents telling us they chose us because they wanted their daughters to turn out like the girl who showed them round."

The school urges parents to come back on their own later to ask any questions that may have occurred to them after the events. "We believe parents should never base a decision on just one visit," says Morgan.

Oakham School, near Leicester, has a similar approach. As well as staging open mornings for 20 sets of parents during term time and hosting parental visits by special appointment, the coeducational school enthusiastically encourages parents to attend concerts, plays and sports fixtures.

"We are in a particularly competitive area here in the East Midlands, and treat open mornings as of such fundamental importance that we have recently increased the number to 12 a year," explains John Wills, Oakham's registrar and director of admissions. These are all age-specific events, aimed at 11-plus, 13-plus and 16-plus entrants, and there are even three targeted at parents whose sons and daughters are considering following the International Baccalaureate.

Smaller schools also mount substantial operations to secure their new intake. Colin Matten, admissions tutor at St James Independent School for Senior Boys in Twickenham, south-west London, runs one open evening and one open morning every autumn, each attended by more than 100 families. The school also runs two tours a week throughout the year, for three or four families: all this for an annual enrolment of around 50 in a school of just 300 boys.

Matten considers the tours by far the most powerful elements in the recruitment process. "This is when parents see the level of teaching, the atmosphere in classrooms and the reality of school life," he explains.

But the challenge for parents is to see beyond the showcase. Lorna Duggleby, head of Bromley High School, is also a parent and offers some tips for mums and dads during open days. The first is to look at the pupils put on show by the schools, asking whether they are a small hand-picked selection or a large representative cross section.

"I'd also advise parents to look at the dining hall and the toilets," she adds, "as these can tell you a lot about how the school values the students in its care."

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