I have always enjoyed school visits, although their usefulness is certainly up for debate. Of course, we would all like to have individual tours, or be a fly-on-the-wall to get a real picture of these mysterious facilities (in many ways so different from when we were young), that we are considering entrusting our dear children to for the next five to seven years.
However, for most of us, an Open Day visit is the best look we are going to get. So how are we to make the most of the situation, and gain as realistic an insight as possible?
Undoubtedly, our schools are attempting to show themselves in the best light; everyone is on their best behaviour, it is clean and tidy, and the teachers all appear very engaged and interested. Meanwhile our children are being wowed by 3D printers in every school and looking in awe at all the fancy equipment not on offer in their local primary. I think we should try to see the positive side of this – it means that the schools really do care and are showing pride in their institution.
Let us try not to be too sceptical; yes, there will have been some preparation for your visit, but a school is a 'living' body – it cannot morph too easily into something it is not for an Open Day. Any disgruntled teacher or parent you meet are unlikely to hide their feelings for the school's benefit. Meeting present pupils and judging a school by them is perhaps the most unwise decision, although they may play a part in your impression of the school.
I have had two of my children attend one grammar - Pates, and whilst they have both shown around parents a number of times, I am certain that the impression they will have left with new families will have been quite different due to their very different personalities. You may have a pupil show you around that appears to be over confident and rather big-headed, but this is not a reflection on the school. It might be frustrating to find yourself being shown around by a pupil that hardly speaks, but this is more likely due to maturity than any fault with the school. Most grammars do not hand-pick those they would like to show parents around, but instead make it compulsory that they assist some years. This means various new families being given tours from the same school are being provided very different degrees of useful information from the pupils. However, that the schools encourage all pupils to take part in this way, does show that it has a high degree of faith in their behaviour and ability to communicate well, which must be a good thing.
What an Open Day can provide you with, and in particular the Head's introduction, is a real feel for the school in question. Sometimes it is hard to pin down what exactly it is about a school that feels right, and it may take a few visits for you to feel comfortable about your decisions. Single sex schools in particular may offer a very different atmosphere to a co-ed establishment, and this may play a part in your decision making.
Of course, this process is particularly difficult as you look around grammar schools; knowing that only if your child does well in the forthcoming eleven plus test, will they have the opportunity to attend it. Whilst on the one hand you probably hope that your child will be impressed with the school, on the other, you may be trying to manage expectations.
A common factor for all grammar school open days is that they are busy affairs. Please allow plenty of time for parking and appreciate that the school is attempting to be as helpful as possible.
To make the most out of your tour with pupils, it is in your interest to put them at ease. Here are some things that my children, as experienced school tour guides, would ask of visitors! I think their thoughts are quite eye-opening.
1. If you are being shown around with another family, please allow them the opportunity to ask questions and share the decision-making regarding which departments to visit.
2. Don't show off about your child's achievements to date – it’s embarrassing!
3. Don't ask us about the eleven plus exam. Nobody discusses how well they did in the test once they have a place – that is very uncool!
4. Ask us about our favourite topics, teachers, hobbies and what we like about the school.
5. Ask us about homework
6. Allow us the opportunity to speak with your child, not just you.
7. Encourage your child to ask questions.
Questions to ask teachers
You may have questions that will need individual attention, such as accommodations for special needs, and a phone call or email to the school would be a suitable way communicate about such matters. Instead try to keep questions with the teachers more general or subject specific
For instance you might like to know the books studied in English Literature in Year 7, whether the school takes part in subject-based competitions such as Mathematical Challenges, the types of homework that might be required, or what extracurricular activities related to the subject are available.
We highly recommend that you do not only visit grammar schools, if your alternative is a comprehensive. We are lucky in Gloucestershire to have many excellent schools. Even if you think you would like your child to attend a grammar, it is really important to appreciate all the hard work these places are doing, and relay a positive attitude to your child. You may be surprised and find you prefer the comprehensive, so try to be open to the possibility.