Boarding School Open Day........did it work for you?

By definition school open days are scripted and orchestrated.  Schools will have selected their guides, planned the route, delivered the set pieces and organised lunch. It looks like a set-up, and it is, but that doesn't mean that it is not a useful exercise.  As parents, or indeed as prospective pupils, you can pick up a huge amount.  It is your task to scratch beneath the veneer and to compare.

Many schools betray their real selves at the first point of contact; the welcome can be lukewarm or even non-existent.  Are they actually interested in you or are you just another inconvenience?  To my mind the effort that is made or not made is likely to be symptomatic of the whole organisation.

In most schools it is the pupils that do the tours.  Some are very careful to provide the script and prescribe the route but it is your job to deviate from this.  Get personal, ask what is best and worst about their lives at school, their favourite teacher/subject/activity, ask to see a particular department or lesson and make sure you chat to some of the "ordinary" teaching staff.  Half way round head for the loo.  Remember you are trying to find out how the pupils are cared for.

Don't be seduced by the facilities.  Every school will have wonderful buildings, some very whizzy high-tech machines, endless playing fields and competition size swimming pools.  Remember your son/daughter may have no interest in most of this kit, may never want to act or row or sing, and what really matters is will he/she be happy, be looked after properly and be taught well.  On the academic front you need to look at the exam statistics, find out where last year's cohort went on to and then compare that to the intake level.  Counting the number going on to Oxbridge is pointless if your boy is going to scrape an A and two Bs at A level.

Another frequent debate is IB v A levels v Pre U.  My advice here is to not get too hung up on the system.  When we look back at our school days do we remember the system or those few inspirational teachers?  It is much more important to check on the enthusiasm of the teaching staff, the nature of the support given when your girl is struggling with some topic or other and always remember who will be dealing with your precious offspring on a daily basis.  Meet a housemaster, a classroom teacher, a matron, a senior pupil.  Ask about contact between school and home, about feedback of information and access to interim reports.

And what of the Head?  He/She certainly sets the tone.  How is the Head thought of by the pupils?  They will tell you, they tend to be disarmingly honest!  Don't be swayed by the speech or the presentation skills, get to talk to him/her.  Get a feel for the character.  If there is an opportunity for questions then do ask but don't try to be too clever or competitive.  Again remember what is really important; the emotional well-being of your child is paramount, not whether there is a bias against public schools at Oxbridge, Bristol or Edinburgh.

At the end don't adopt a tick-box mentality.  This won't work as all these big boarding schools will tick virtually all of the boxes for you.  Go with your gut feeling and above all listen to your son/daughter.  Much as you might like to, you are not choosing a school for yourself and if you are sensible you will not be looking at a substandard school.  Don't try to see too many, listen to the advice of people you trust but always remember most parents who have chosen a school will be very keen to view that as the "best". We want to justify and feel good about the choice, after all we are paying through the nose for it.

Let me know how it did go, if the day made an impression, good or bad.

Rory I Reilly