The time has come. It doesn’t seem 5 minutes ago you were dropping off your child for their first day at school and now they’re preparing to make the move to Secondary / Grammar School. Suddenly you find yourself with the monumental task of selecting the right school for the next several years of their educational development.
In many ways, this will form the core of their educational career and the basis of many of their relationships, so it’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed and nervous as a parent. Thankfully, many secondary and grammar schools hold friendly open days which allow you to weigh things up for yourself.
You arrive, step onto the school premises and are immediately greeted with teachers and students telling how great everything is. How do you stay objective? How do you find the information you need?
Here is a list of questions you should ask teachers and students to find out if the school you’re visiting is a good match for your child.
Write some of them down and don’t be afraid to ask!
Questions to ask pupils
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a conversation with the head teacher and a couple of subject teachers is enough, but it really isn’t. They’re naturally biased, and if they like their job (and want to keep it!) they’re more likely praise the school than tell you of its shortcomings. No school is perfect. You’re not out to prove them wrong, but why not have a chat with some of the pupils there to get their take on things? Here are some questions you should ask the year 7’s…
1 – How much homework per day do you get?
This a great way to establish how hard the school works their pupils. If they respond with a ‘what’s homework?’ kind of expression you know something isn’t right. Similarly, too much homework can be a bad thing too.
Invite pupils to talk about their homework and gauge how they relate to it. Does it make them happy? Do they get visibly stressed talking about it? Do they joke about it?
2 – What happens on wet days?
This is something that not many parents think about. Open days are usually held in the summer holidays when everything’s green and inviting. What happens when it’s dark, stormy and rainy though? Do students get herded into a spare classroom? Are they confined to a yard? What kind of activities do they enjoy? A good school will see wet days as an opportunity for further learning and development through play, not a problem that needs a quick solution.
3 – What subject do you like least and why?
It’s very easy for students to talk about things they love, but every pupil has pain points. Rather than ask them what they love about going to school, ask them what they dislike. By doing this, you’ll get a more balanced view of the school in general – if the most negative answer you get is that a pupil doesn’t like geography very much, that’s probably a good thing. However, if they talk about how terrible a particular lesson is because they always get supply teachers or there aren’t enough computers to go around, you’ve hit on some important info.
4 – How often do you have to share stuff? Is it annoying?
Sharing resources isn’t a problem when handled correctly. It’s a great way for the school to give students valuable access to expensive tools. However, if they’re constantly having to share a laptop or tablet between 3 other students every IT lesson, that should raise alarm bells. Get their take on it – is it a problem? Do they sound concerned or annoyed that they never get control of a resource? Have they ever been ‘stuck’ on a piece of homework because they couldn’t get what they needed from the school, or had to share it with Johnny who wasn’t very good at sharing?
5 – In science, when do you get to dissect something like a rat?
This is a leading question but it you’ll either see a pupil light up with an exciting anecdote or sink into disappointment because they never go the chance to do anything like that.
Questions to ask the Head Of Year
Pupils will give you an insight into the day to day experience of learning at that school, but the head of year will be a great resource for factual information. Rather than let them talk to you anecdotally about the school, try slipping in some factual questions that have specific answers…
1 – Do the year 7’s have a buddy system or a mentor?
This shows that the school has thought about the delegation of responsibility and can help get pupils used to following rules as well as participating in their creation and enforcement.
2 – How many local trips did the year 7’s get to take last year?
Trips are a great way to teach children about the world, even if they’re just to local attractions or landmarks. The school should be actively involved in this, promoting visits that help pupils learn about their town/city and its history.
3 – How many new teachers started in the past 2 years?
If staff turnover is particularly high it can be a bad sign – happy teachers make for happy pupils. If a couple of new teachers have been added to the team recently that’s no big deal (and can actually be a sign that the school is an attractive prospect), but if the number of new starters is in double figures you’d have cause for concern. Pupils that have a consistent experience with teachers and staff perform far better than those who have to constantly adapt to new learning environments and methods.
4 – Last time GCSE options clashed, how did the school handle it?
It happens more than you’d think. If a pupil picks a relatively uncommon combination of GCSE subjects that put a strain on the school’s teaching timetable, how do they deal with it? Do they accommodate the pupil’s choices and bend, or do they stick to the timetable and force the pupil down another route?
Open days can be a fantastic way to get to know a school, but if you’re led too much you may not see obvious problems that are right under your nose.
Remember, an open day is a chance for the school to ‘sell themselves’ to you as much as it is for you to find out information. If they wheel out some impressive equipment like interactive whiteboards, try asking the pupils when they last used it.
Is it just being wheeled out for show, or does every classroom have one?
And finally, don’t be afraid to break protocol slightly by looking beyond the curtains – obviously, you can’t go wandering into the staff room or head teacher’s office, but you should check the pupil toilets and one or two empty classrooms if you can.
What questions did you ask on school open days that really gave you an insight into the quality of the school? Leave your response in our comments.
Let’s look to help each other!