School open days: First impressions that can last a lifetime

School open days are the first step in a relationship that will shape your child's future, says Jessica Moore
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An open day can be an emotional experience. "A parent will get a feeling when they walk in, and that often dictates which school they choose for their child," says Trevor Kernohan, the principal of Fulneck School in Leeds. "Parents can look online and study a school's brochure sent to them, but no matter how good those resources are, you can't experience the atmosphere of the school remotely; you have to come in."

Andrew Turner, deputy head of Charterhouse School in Surrey, agrees: "That initial look around is absolutely vital; it is where a parent and their child start to assess whether they fit the environment and [whether it fits] them."

According to Zoë Marlow, director of admissions at Roedean Girls' School, that open day is just a starting point. "It is where prospective parents and students decide whether they like the location, the buzz and the head," she explains. But it's not until several meetings, assessments and interviews later that a pupil actually unpacks her bag. "By the time a girl starts, she and her parents will have a strong sense of what it's like to study here."

At both Roedean and Fulneck, open days can involve hands-on classes for prospective students while parents chat to senior staff and current students. Current pupils then lead a tour of the school. "Our children are brilliant ambassadors for the school. They could sell it three times over," notes Kernohan. "And meeting the child also gives the school a chance to see how well they will fit in," he adds.

At Charterhouse things are a little different. Instead of open days, they tailor individual tours for interested parents. This happens most days throughout the academic year. "Nothing is going on specifically for these visitors that wouldn't normally be going on," says Turner. "Parents get an honest insight."

Whatever the format, this first meeting is crucial. It can lead to a lasting and pivotal relationship. If family and school hit it off, further dates are arranged. Students come back for a taster day; potential boarders are invited to stay overnight. "That's the point at which they form a strong opinion about whether they want to come here," Marlow says.

The Independent Schools Council (ISC) website publishes the dates of open days at the vast majority of UK independent schools. You can also find league tables, inspectorate reports and exam results. But results and reputation can only take parents so far in the decision-making process.

"We would advise any parent to go and see a school if they can," says Judith Fenn, head of school services at the ISC. "Look out for the things the school hasn't put on specifically for the open day. Check noticeboards to see what's happening day-to-day. That will give you an extra insight and help you decide whether it's a school your child will be happy at."

The ISC website also suggests some useful questions to ask, such as the number of students in each class, the level of contact between parents and teachers, the percentage of a schools' students that go on to university, and extracurricular activities.

"Take your child with you," Fenn adds. "Children know which schools their friends are looking at and they may have an idea of where they want to go. Sometimes an open day confirms that. Other times, you may find it's not what you thought."

What's best for one child isn't necessarily best for another. "Every child has different strengths and weaknesses, and it's important that their school provides the right environment for them to thrive in," says Annette McGivern, marketing manager at Charterhouse. "That's partly down to academic ability, but it's the whole package, really. We work closely with prospective students, parents and prep school heads to get that right".