So, here I am. The morning after my first secondary school Open Day. High on PTA squash and easing myself in to the decision hot seat. My eldest son is in Year 6 of primary school and I find myself in the peculiar position of attempting to follow my own advice.
Last year I wrote Maximise your Open Day experience with School Guide's top ten tips. As we enter open season once again, I’ve re-visited the tips. I still agree – with myself; odd – that it’s good to be prepared. Starting early certainly eases the pressure. But the thing that’s struck me this time around is that at 10, nearly 11, my son is much more ready for the next stage; and so am I. It's much easier for me to imagine him in each setting and, in general, big school doesn't look so big.
You are the expert on your child
All of us hanker for that school light bulb moment. But, like every area of education, we all progress at different rates. So don’t worry if you are duly heading to all the Open Days a good year or so early and can't seem to even locate the light switch.
Your moment will come.
As I say time and time again to the hundreds of parents I am fortunate to speak to each week as CEO and Founder of School Guide, you are the expert on your child. You are the best person to make this decision and your eureka is out there.
It’s important not to get too pre-occupied with the other experts you meet on the way. You know the ones: the parents who just know. They are experts in a different field: their child, not yours.
Meet the parents
But talking to parents with children already at the school is key. That’s why mid-tour last night I was hovering over the ginger biscuits at the PTA refreshment table, asking the pinny-wearing parents what they thought of the school. Okay, I’m not daft. I know these mums and dads have made their decision and, for better for worse, have bought in to it. But sharing information is vital. We help this process with our Parent Reviews: by parents for parents. A parents-eye-view of proceedings can be so valuable in helping you find the best school for your child. You can also visit Meet The Parents, a grassroots scheme that puts primary school parents in touch with parents at their local secondaries via information sharing meet ups.
Being armed with a list of questions for your mini tour guide is also a good idea plus some decent conversation starters for teachers.
Do you like the corridor culture?
Make mental notes on the corridor culture too. Look at the way pupils react and interact with the staff. Do the teachers know the children’s names? Is there an open but respectful relationship between staff and pupils? I like to see children holding doors open and making eye contact with adults. This is my thing for my child. Try and work out what’s important to you and your child. You can't tick your own boxes if you don't know what they are.
Perhaps art is key and you want to see creativity in all areas of the school as well as in the art block? Should religion be at the heart of your child’s education? Maybe you are worried your child is lacking in confidence in reading and want to ensure the library is a warm and welcoming place?
Don’t be afraid to go off menu when it comes to the tour plan either. Or set the pace. I would rather see four or five key subject classrooms than attempt to jog around the whole lot. It might be helpful to keep the famous lines by the poet William Henry Davies in your head: “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.”
PowerPoint versus playground
Ultimately, if you take your time, it may well be something quite small that makes a big difference to your opinion of a school. As we left the large secondary school last night, we passed a group of pupils heading home across the sports field. Dressed in muddy kit and lumbering with heavy bags, they were clearly not part of the Open Day show. ‘Hi there,’ one called out to me, and I braced myself for a little bit of cheeky schoolboy banter. ‘You should definitely send your son here. It’s fun.’
The whole group burst out laughing but the boy meant it, and it was the interaction rather than the statement that amused his mates.
No amount of slick PowerPoint presentations or carefully picked pupils playing instruments in the music block could have led to that moment. My son and I headed back to the car smiling.
I think we may have had our school light bulb moment.
Here's to finding yours.
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