'All independent schools have open days which usually take place in September or October. They are a great opportunity to get a feel for the working life of a school, its facilities, pupils and staff. These days are often specially organised with departments giving demonstrations, showing examples of work and discussing recent projects. All open days are a wonderful opportunity to get a real feel for what a school is truly like. Yes, there are special presentations and it is not a ‘normal’ school day, but the pupils and teachers are all there and probably some current parents too so make the most of it and ask questions – lots and lots of questions. However, open days can get very busy and there will be lots of other parents and pupils so don’t expect to have undivided attention from key members of staff. Remember to relax. It should be a fun experience and it is good to get your children involved – perhaps they have questions they want to ask or specific departments they really want to visit. As there is a lot to take in, do follow it up with a private visit or even a taster day for your children. Open days are just part of the process of getting to know a school and whether it will work for your family.'
Michael CB Spens, Headmaster, Fettes College, Edinburgh
'Most independent schools work hard before open days to present their school at its best. The buildings and facilities should look clean, tidy and well maintained and wall displays should show a range of pupils’ work. Many departments put on interactive displays for prospective pupils to get involved, and teachers should be welcoming and happy to explain the display or activity and its relevance to the curriculum. Parents should ask about class sizes at each stage of school and what teachers do to differentiate between different ability levels in the classroom. Extra-curricular activities are an important part of everyday life in independent schools – find out what is available and if the range covers all interests. Are external professionals invited into school to hold workshops in different subject areas? What trips are organised off-site to support the curriculum? Parents may also wish to speak to staff about pastoral care, enrichment and leadership opportunities as well as higher education and careers advice. Generally, pupils show families round. Do they look smartly dressed and proud to represent their school? Are they confident when guiding families and knowledgeable about their school? Above all, do they look happy? After the Open Day, parents should make an appointment for an individual visit so that they can talk to the Head in greater detail and receive a tour of the school on a working day, where they should see pupils working quietly and purposefully when they visit classrooms.'
Jack Williams, Headteacher, Hipperholme Grammar School, Halifax
'Open days are a chance for prospective parents and pupils to visit schools and meet its staff and pupils. They offer the opportunity to ask questions and find out if the school is a good fit. Of course, reports and brochures do their part in helping to explain a school’s academic results and ethos, but often the only way to capture the culture of a school is to pay it a visit. Open days are also one of the only chances parents will get to meet and speak with a range of teachers at a school, giving better insight into the teaching culture. What parents should look for is, ultimately, if their child will be happy at the school. For example at Polam Hall School we offer a wide range of subjects for our sixth form students, have boarding provisions and provide a variety of extra curricular activities which is attractive to a lot of parents. The most important thing for an open day is for parents to ask as many questions as they need to get a good feel for the school and whether it suits their child. The only stupid question is one that is not asked!'
John Moreland, Headmaster, Polam Hall School, Darlington
'Richmond House School uses Year 6 pupils as tour guides, thereby giving visitors an honest account of the school and allowing them to witness the pupils’ general behaviour and attitude. After all, if the children are enthusiastic, well-mannered and happy, the school must be doing something right! Take the opportunity to speak to the teachers and you will be able to assess if they are knowledgeable in their field, inspiring, display the right level of discipline and are, above all, caring. Do not be afraid to raise any concerns about the school or your child. Talk to the Head about their vision for the school as that will give you an idea of how the school is run and where it is going. Most people have an idea in their mind of the sort of environment that is right for their child; big or small, modern or cosy. Look at class sizes and pupil-to-teacher ratios as you will probably have an idea whether your child will thrive in a large class with lots of friends to choose from or a smaller environment with more individual attention from staff. Independent schools are not tied to the National Curriculum so the subjects on offer can be broad – for example, we include Spanish and Drama – so take a close look at what is on offer. Breadth of opportunity is important. It is useful to look beyond the facilities and clubs, to the number of teams and opportunities for your child to be involved in areas such as Sports and Music. Working parents may also be interested in the provision and flexibility of before and after-school care. This is an important time for you and your child so take your time to look at the options available to you.'
Jane Disley, Headmistress, Richmond House School, Far Headingley, Leeds
‘Open days present valuable opportunities for parents to see what schools have to offer. However, they are a little contrived, ranging from well-rehearsed lessons to the sort of whistles and bells activities that children only ever have access to once a year – on open day, in fact! Yet, such occasions can still provide an insight into the heart and soul of a school. Parents often attend, armed with lists of questions about results, subjects, pastoral care or university destinations. But a school that is worth its salt will already have published all of this information on its website and senior staff will have ready answers. Perhaps at least as important as an interrogation is how you as a prospective parent and your son or daughter feel about the school. Look carefully. Are the children happy in each other’s company? Do they work easily, purposefully and helpfully together? Do they engage confidently and enthusiastically with visitors? Do they seem to care about their school and show pride in it? Look at the teachers too. Do they exude enthusiasm for their academic subjects, taught in well-resourced classrooms? How do they speak to the children and how do the children behave and speak to their teachers? The best schools will be imbued with an easy, respectful and collegial relationship between teachers and pupils – learning, after all, is a synthesis, not a one-way process. So beware the jaded teachers, the unloved displays of work from the 1980s and the children who are seen as a necessary evil. Instead embrace the happy, well-led, ambitious and dynamic school where the teachers view the opportunity to unlock potential and inspire young minds as the best job in the world.’
Alan Stevens, Headmaster, Barnard Castle School, County Durham