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Open days: what you need to know, and what to look out for

By Talk Education
03 July 2024

Open-day season is on the horizon! The summer holidays are the perfect time to get ahead and fully prepared for the next school admissions cycle, and with school registrations now open, places will start filling up fast. Our advice? Use the next few weeks to find out as much information as possible about the schools on your shortlist, and then start securing your open day spots so you can be among the first visitors through the doors in the autumn term.

So how can you make sure your visit really counts, what are the most important things to look out for and what are the key questions that parents should ask?

First things first: it’s important to remember that open days may not always be a true reflection of a school on an average day. ‘Be careful how you judge it,’ says Edgeborough. ‘Is this an “all-singing, all-dancing” open day with special performances, or is it just a normal school day?’

If the school has rolled out the red carpet, use the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere and get a flavour of the school. If you’re visiting a number of schools, these sorts of open days are a great way to compare and contrast different options. But whatever you do, make sure you go back and see the school on a normal working day too. ‘Observing the interaction of teachers and children in lessons gives you an idea of the people at the heart of the school,’ says Somerhill. If the school isn’t happy for you to come back for an individual visit, alarm bells should ring.

Meeting the head

More often than not, an open day will involve a talk from the head. These can be hugely eye-opening and inspirational… or somewhat dull. Either way, they’re important. ‘The passion of the head sets the tone for the school and its ethos,’ adds Somerhill. Your first impressions are important: is the head intimidating, or warm and welcoming? Do they come across as being very forward-thinking, or more traditional and old-school? Both of these attributes have different pros and cons depending on your personal outlook – so go with your gut.

The tour

A school that’s confident in its own skin will have no qualms about offering you a tour with a pupil guide. Sure, some places might wheel out their most articulate, mature and confident children, but it’s unlikely they’ll have been heavily briefed, and you’re likely to be given a reassuringly honest and candid snapshot of the school. Don’t try to stick to a set script. ‘This is the chance for parents to ask all sorts of questions about school life,’ says Marlborough House School.

'Parents should consider what their tour guides are like,’ adds Cheam. ‘Are they friendly, happy, engaged, able to interact with them and others, polite and confident? Asking pupil guides to share their experiences with open questions such as “What do you like most about the school?” or “What would you change?” is a good way to gain further insight.’ If you can, try to snatch a bit of time with both the youngest and oldest pupils – it’s an ideal way to see how they grow and flourish during their time at the school.

What to look out for

Make sure you see everything, and not just a carefully curated selection of the school’s greatest hits. If the school has masses of space and is rightly proud of its country setting, get out and have a look for yourself. 

Look at the fabric of the school and work out what’s more important to you: a spread of state-of-the-art, shiny facilities, or something a little more worn and homely? If you’re considering boarding, it’s vital you have a proper nose around the boarding houses. Can you see your child living here? Ask to meet the houseparents and matron: they’ll play a huge role in your child’s pastoral care and personal development, and it’s important that you feel comfortable with them.

Keep an eye on the other families on the tour too. We’ve been to some open days where parents were arriving in helicopters; at others, the car park was full of battered Volvos. Prep schools tend to have a huge mix of parents, so have a think about whether you’ll fit in. Ask yourself what you’re looking for: do you want a whole new group of friends for yourself, as well as your child? Are you keen to be heavily involved in school social events or the PTA? At some schools, parental involvement is incredibly important – at others, it can be a bit of an afterthought (this is usually more the case at senior schools, however).

The key questions to ask

Don’t pass up on the opportunity to pick at the more serious stuff too. ‘Make sure you ask the questions that are important to you,’ says the Dragon School. ‘Do not be afraid to ask specific questions pertinent to your child’s/family’s circumstances. This is a big decision.’

‘Speaking to someone from the admissions team is important during a visit, as they can give parents information on waiting lists, entry points, the availability of places and advice on the next steps. This is a key relationship and regular communication can be vital if places are tight,’ advises Cheam.

Think about the questions you won’t necessarily find the answers to on the school website. How does the school monitor pupils’ academic progress? How much homework is there really? What happens if your child is struggling or falling behind?

Then there’s life beyond the classroom. ‘Parents should ask about provision and activities outside of the core curriculum,’ says Cheam. ‘What afterschool clubs, wraparound care, school trips and enrichment activities are provided? A broad offering so a child can find their niche is good, whereas moulding all children in the same direction is not so good.’ The Dragon adds: ‘Look for a breadth of opportunity and a broad extracurricular programme that can help develop skills of leadership, teamwork, diplomacy and resilience: skills that are important in the workplace and in wider society, both today and in the future.’

Most importantly, make sure you look closely at the pastoral side. All schools wax lyrical about their pastoral care, but an open day is an opportunity to see it in action. Ask the school about its social media or bullying policies; find out how it supports parents and pupils during difficult times; and enquire about how it handles mental-health issues. Don’t feel embarrassed: these are all perfectly reasonable questions, and you should expect confident and detailed answers.

If you still can’t decide…

Go back and visit again. We’d suggest booking a one-to-one meeting with the head (either virtually or in person) too – this is particularly important if you have any niggling doubts. If you feel the head is skirting around an important issue, then there’s your answer right there.

Virtual tours may not be quite the same, but if you can’t get to a school in person, they’re the next best thing. Many schools worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to produce a wealth of videos and online resources for prospective parents, and they're still reaping the benefits. ‘Although nothing can replace a personal visit, you will still have a chance to hear from our teachers and see our pupils in action,’ says Cranleigh Prep School.

‘If you know current parents, arrange a chat to get their insider knowledge, says Wells Cathedral Junior School. ‘Try not to judge any schools based on your personal perception from when you were young - schools often change a great deal over the years. If you are still undecided, close your eyes and picture your child at each school you’re considering in your mind…my bet is a school will stand out!’

If you’re still stuck, use Talk Education! We know every school inside out, and we’ve visited them all ourselves. If you can’t decide between two or three schools, need help with a knotty issue or instant advice on a particular question, our advisory team is here to help.

Good luck – and happy visiting!