What to Look for When You Visit a School for a School Tour or an Open Day
Written by Mrs Alex Hems, Head of St George’s School, Edinburgh
Choosing the right school for your child feels like a huge responsibility and the choice may feel bewildering. While there may be differences in the examination courses on offer from school to school, for example A level, Pre-U, IB, Highers and Advanced Highers in Scotland, good schools should all offer a wide variety of extra-curricular activities, strong teaching and caring staff who want to see their pupils flourishing. The most important thing is the sense in your own mind that the school feels like a good fit for your child and for you as parents. Dazzling new facilities of course are impressive, and may provide an excellent environment for learning. At the heart of any good school, however, are strong relationships and inspiring, dedicated teachers. Find out how the school will go about getting to know your child. Who will really know her or him best? Schools will often be proud to tell you about the success of their outstanding performers or elite athletes, but most children do not fit this category. How will the school ensure that your child is able to fulfil her or his potential, be happy and hopefully discover a passion that may stay with them for life?
At an Open Day you are likely to be able to meet a good variety of staff and pupils, tour the classrooms and other facilities and hear the Head speaking. When you are in the classrooms, try to look at the pupils’ work which will probably be on display. Looking through jotters and exercise books will give you a sense of the kind of tasks that teachers set and the nature of the feedback that they give, which can have a significant impact on learning. If you have a chance to speak to teachers, you could ask them how they monitor progress and how much use they make of tracking data to ensure that every child is performing to their best. Do they teach in mixed ability groups or are students streamed by ability? If the latter, how much movement is there between the groups? Ask your student tour guides to share their own point of view; they will probably be eager to tell you what is special about their school. How well do they feel they know others in their year group and in the years above and below them? What opportunities exist for students to work together across the age-range?
Destinations of Leavers
The school will probably have on display information about where their recent leavers have gone to study, and the courses that they have chosen. Ask about the kind of support that is available to help the sixth formers to make these choices. When looking at these lists, remember that some schools are very selective at entry and therefore are more likely to send the majority of their students to well-known, very prestigious institutions. At a less selective school you will see a wider range of courses and institutions represented on their destinations lists. You should still expect to see the country’s top universities, but you may also see more vocational or creative courses being chosen. A key question to ask is about the proportion of pupils who gain places at their first choice university or college. A school that really has its students’ best interests at heart should be helping them to identify the courses that will enable them to flourish in the future and offer them the appropriate level of both challenge and support as they study. Other questions that you might wish to consider would be whether the school helps older students to find work experience and how experienced they are in supporting applications to international universities.
An Individual Visit
On an Open Day you may well be one of many families visiting the school. The site will be crowded with adults and while you will be able to learn quite a bit, particularly from talking to pupils and teachers, if you are giving serious consideration to a school then try to return for an individual visit when you should have the chance to meet with the Head teacher personally and see lessons in action as you walk the corridors with your guides. This will give you the opportunity to sense something about the tone of the school. Do students and staff smile at you when they meet you as you walk around? What is behaviour like in the corridors? What do you see and hear in the classrooms as you go past? Are students engaged and participating? Don’t be put off by a hubbub of conversation in a lesson; silence does not always mean that the best learning is taking place, but you would expect a sense of purpose and structure to the discussions or activities. Good lessons have many elements, any one of which you might see as you pass a classroom: teacher-led explanation, collaboration, quiet thinking, effective questioning, writing or practical application.
Your meeting with the Head or other senior staff is a chance to find out more about the ethos of the school, plans for the future and educational vision.
Every family will have their own particular interests and queries.
Which modern languages are available, and at what stage are they introduced? How does the school support and extend the learning of those who join with a high level of proficiency in a language that the peer group will be studying at a more basic level? Some schools will use their language assistants, for example, to continue to develop the language skills of these students, or it may be that they would benefit from an extra focus on written skills in a language in which they are orally fluent. Bear in mind that sitting qualifications in a native language at a young age is not always advisable as, although a student may have the linguistic proficiency, courses designed to be studied by 17 or 18 year olds require a level of maturity which a younger student may not have.
How many teams does the school routinely put out on a Saturday to compete against other schools? If your child is a strong sports player she or he may already play for a club or train outside school but being part of a school team is a great way to meet new friends and feel that you fit in. Does the school value participation as much as high level performance? Are there clubs and teams that offer everyone the chance to take part or does the school focus more on the achievements of the elite players and the 1st teams?
How many times a week will your child have a PE lesson? Is PE compulsory all the way to the top of the school and how imaginative is their approach to getting older students involved in physical activity? Many schools have impressive sports facilities with astroturf pitches, a pool and multi-gym conditioning rooms, but do ask about how often they are used, and which year groups and teams are able to use them.
Learning Support will be helpful to many students at some point in their school or university career, not only those with a specific learning difficulty such as dyslexia. Does the school offer help with organisation, essay planning or revision skills for example? Are children able to use laptops or other assistive technology in the classroom?
The Extra-curricular Life of the School
Good schools will offer their students a range of enriching opportunities that extend their learning beyond the classroom. Look at the balance – is it focused particularly on physical or outdoor activity for example or are there opportunities for debating, writing or student-led drama as well? Are there Societies to extend academic interests through talks and workshops with experts? How much of a role do the students themselves take in planning and running these activities? For older students, the Young Enterprise scheme is an excellent opportunity to work with mentors from the business world and set up their own company for a few months. Model United Nations events can draw together students from different year groups to compete with other schools, learning about current affairs and international relations while fine-tuning their public speaking and team working skills. The Combined Cadet Force (CCF) and Duke of Edinburgh’s Award are about far more than drill and rucksacks.
How is instrumental music tuition arranged? Will your child miss the same lesson every week to attend their private lesson or are they rotated? What sort of opportunities are there to perform with others or take part in ensembles?
Visiting a Through-School
If you are considering a through-school, one with a junior or prep/pre-prep department as well as a senior school you might want to find out how close the connections are between the different sections. Do the younger children benefit from specialist teaching provided by subject staff from the senior school for example? Is the curriculum planned across the school and how much contact do the teachers in different sections of the school have with one another?
How many pupils transfer from the junior to senior section and is that transfer automatic or do they need to sit a test? Often schools will grow in size as the students get older so there may be one or two classes per year in the junior or prep department but, with entry points at 11, 13 or 16, classes will be added to accommodate new entrants. At what stage do the younger pupils start to move from classroom to classroom for their lessons, rather than always being taught by a class teacher in one location? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but you will have a sense of what will work best for your family and your child.
Parents sometimes worry that their child will struggle to fit in to a group if the rest of the class have known each other for many years. Good schools will have carefully planned mechanisms for helping new pupils to settle in, with buddies on hand to look after them. Find out what is in place, especially if you plan to relocate mid-way through the school year. Usually, children are very excited about welcoming new arrivals. Taster days can be helpful and will enable your child to spend time with the cohort they will join.
Contact with Parents
You should expect at least one written report in a year and at least one formal Parents’ Meeting, but you might also receive mid-term grade cards or shorter ‘target’ reports after set of exams, and have a meeting with a form tutor at some point in the year as well. How open is the school to parental involvement? At St George’s we aim to work in partnership with parents and are clear that no concern is too small to bring to our attention. Our Parent-Teacher Forum allows matters to be raised in a more formal context and our Open Forum meetings offer regular opportunities for us to speak about topics such as the curriculum, use of technology and social media.
If you are considering a boarding school you will have a great many further criteria in mind. How far is the school from home or from a station or airport? How often are pupils allowed home at the weekends? Do they have compulsory exeats when the whole school closes, aside from the usual holidays, and conversely are there any ‘closed weekends’ when all pupils are expected to be in school? What sort of social programme is available with other schools? How much time are the Houseparents/Housemistress/master able to spend with the pupils in their care? Is there scope for flexi-boarding or weekly boarding? Do pupils hand in phones and other devices at night and at what age does that change?
What Happens when Things go Wrong?
Growing up can be tricky, and the leadership team at a good school should be happy to talk to you about the support they offer to students and families when things go wrong, as they sometimes do. At some schools it will be the Form Teacher/ tutor who plays the key role in overseeing progress and wellbeing and who will be the first point of contact with parents. In other cases it will be the Head of Year or a Housemistress/master who has this role. They will be part of a pastoral or guidance team, usually led by one of the Deputy Heads. Hopefully the school will want to work closely with parents when things go wrong, whether in terms of academic performance, health, behaviour or happiness. Often matters can be quickly resolved once they are out in the open but sometimes of course they are more complex. Ask about the way in which bullying is handled at the school. There is potential for bullying and unkindness to occur in any community, however happy and well-run it is; the key from a parent’s point of view is the way in which the school responds. Has the school created an environment in which pupils are happy to come forward and share concerns about others? Is there a clear code of conduct and what are the guidelines and expectations for mobile phone use in school? These should be age-appropriate and ideally developed in discussion with pupils to ensure maximum buy-in from the school. Most schools recognise the value of education about appropriate and legal use of technology, alongside clearly articulated expectations of what is acceptable within the school community. Does the school have a counsellor available for pupils?
We hope that you will find these suggestions helpful. If you would like to find out more about St George’s, please come along to our Open Mornings on 7 and 11 October, or book a visit at any time that suits you.
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