Getting The Most From School Open Night

January 2023 and it’s the big month of the school open days and nights for the P7s and P6s.

This is a relatively, small window of opportunity for you to take in all the aspects of the ‘big school’ and to make a judgement call on its suitability and likability, so I hope the following tips will help you make it as productive as possible.

Tip 1. Make an effort to take the P6 child

Many parents feel that their P6 child is still too young for the whole process and there’s plenty of time to be worrying about changing schools next year, but trust me, take the time now and enjoy some school open nights.

In reality, the child will be going into P7 in nine months and will then be working towards their transfer test, so having early visibility of their future school could be very motivating for the child.

Also, after the test and before the results there is such a short window for visiting schools and there could be clashes with two potential schools happening on the same day e.g. Friends and Wallace are often on the same day, so you could find yourself stuck and unable to see all the schools you want to.

Tip 2. Make a list of all schools to visit

If your child wants to do the AQE / GL test and go to a grammar school, that’s great and so consider these grammar schools as your plan A but don’t ignore the high schools and visit schools in your area that do not rely on an AQE / GL score.

Firstly, these schools (which you might not initially want) could actually surprise you but importantly, these could be your plan B if the results are not what you expect.

Tip 3. Do your research before the visit

The internet has a wealth of information, so have a nosey around the school’s website, their Facebook Page, Instagram and Twitter, to see what comes up. This will start to give you an early feel for the ethos of the school and may also give you some questions to take with you on the open night.

Also, you can have a look at the school’s admission criteria* in advance so you know how they will be allocating places

*Note – The Admission Criteria documents are last year’s documents and this will be updated in mid-January when documents are released by the EA, (but they rarely change much)

Tip 4. Don’t overdress with layers

The school open nights can become very crowded and you’re likely to spend most of your time inside, so keep your clothing layers to a minimum as you’ll probably get quite warm. The last thing you want to do is be carrying around your extra jumper, coat, hat and scarf all night.

Tip 5. Try to leave siblings behind

Whilst there are generally no strict rules which will exclude younger kids from attending the event, having them there is likely to cause you a distraction, so my advice is to try to get a babysitter or leave one parent behind to give the other parent and transfer child a better chance to explore the school and enjoy the experience.

Tip 6. Be early

You might be surprised how long it will take you to navigate a large school which you’ve never been in before – and to get around all the departments you really want to see – so it’s best to make sure you’re on time and can take the visit at your leisure, rather than feeling rushed and under pressure.

Tip 7. Open your ears and trust your instincts

It’s all well and good having a pre-set number of questions prepared and getting satisfactory answers, but the open night is much more than fact finding.

Look around. Take in the atmosphere. Do the pupils look happy and content at the school? Are the teachers nice?

Really take a minute to stop in the craziness, sit back (metaphorically and actually), absorb the surroundings and reflect on whether you think this would be a good school for your child.

Tip 8. Make an effort to attend and listen to the Principal’s Address

The principal is the leader of the school and like any organisation or business, the leadership qualities will often set the tone for the rest of the school so you are likely to judge the principal’s charisma as well as what they say during their Address.

Often the principal will provide an overview of the school, highlighting all the best qualities, the prospect of change and importantly, for the potential students, and might cover the school’s admission criteria in detail. In my opinion, this is very important and sometimes undervalued so make the effort to attend. However, pay attention to the timings provided and make sure you’re early to take your seat, because once the Address starts, some schools will not let parents enter the room as this would be disruptive.

A lot of parents going through this process for the first time will turn up and take each department in their stride, probably based on the layout of the school, but this is probably not the best plan because as the evening goes on, some departments always prove more popular with the masses and can become quite crowded. 

Therefore, if you’re early, I would suggest seeking out and exploring the HE department (they are usually baking – yummy), the Science areas where fun experiments are usually taking place along with the Maths and Technology departments. It makes sense to get to these done when there’s more space available so you son or daughter can join in with the activities. Then you can see the other, quieter departments afterwards.

Tip 10. Accept a pupil guide and have a chat

Most schools will choose their best pupils to be their ambassadors so if you’re offered a pupil guide, accept their invitation kindly as you’ll have a chance to hear about their experience.

Ask the child about their time at the school – how did they settle in, what’s the thing they love best, is there anything they don’t love, any good clubs they would recommend etc. and you’ll probably get very open and honest answers. But this isn’t an interrogation, but rather a real opportunity to get a feel for the type of students that attend your child’s future school and in my experience it’s always been very sweet to witness a child stepping up to this responsibility.

It’s typical that one student is assigned to one family so it’s quite a personal experience but don’t feel you have to be toured all night and when you feel you have the hang of it, you can thank the child and tell them that you’re ok now and they’ll move on to another family.

Tip 11. Figure out the lunchtime arrangements

This is always an important one for parents and children, so find out if the school offers school meals and if they do what level of variety is provided. Also, with regards to payments, you may want to discover if the school uses a cashless system, dinner tickets, cash or a combination of all three.

Tip 12. Transport to school

The school open night is a great opportunity to talk to pupils and students and explore the best transport links from your local area to the school. With a little hope, there may be dedicated school buses laid on, or on the downside it could make the school seem less appealing if it means a very early start for your child. This can be an important factor in school choice and a good opportunity to figure this out.

Tip 13. Think about future exam choices

People often say, “It doesn’t matter what school a child goes to because they all do the same GCSEs anyway” and whilst this may have been true in the past, things do seem to be changing and many schools will offer BTEC opportunities or GCSEs in Sport etc, whilst others will not.

You may also think that 4th & 5th year are too far off, but time really does fly so when you’re choosing a school, step back and think if you child is the academic type who likes to revise and do exams, or are they happier doing practical work with coursework?

Up until a few years ago, my own, personal experience was limited to grammar schools, but then I attended a GCSE information session at a non-grammar and I must say, I was blown away by the extended choice they offered to cater to all kids.

In my example, the academic-types were accommodated with the traditional exam style GCSEs e.g. history, geography etc., but for the kids who weren’t so keen on exams, (and lets be honest not everyone is) they offered a significant number of BTEC courses in Business Studies, Media, ICT & Technology etc., which allowed children, who prefer a more hands-on approach, a greater chance of happiness, engagement and success.

So, during your school open nights, jump forward a few years in your mind and ask questions about what the school offers in terms of GCSE or BTEC options and try to select the best fit for your child.

Tip 14. School Fees

Compared to primary schools, where parents are usually asked for a small fee per year, grammar schools’ fees and costs can be (but are not always) significantly higher. So, whilst you’re out exploring,  find out about the school fees (both the compulsory and the voluntary amounts) and figure if there are any other additional costs e.g. ipad, extra-curricular sports, extra-curricular music. During these conversations, if you find these costs are high, you may also want to ask how they are paid e.g. money up front, quarterly payment options or direct debit and if there’s any support from the school.

Tip 15. Try to respect closing time

Although you may be having a ball and still have a long, question list, just be mindful that when the time pushes on and everyone else has left the building, it’s probably time to wrap up and let the teachers go home.

Tip 16. When it’s over capture your child’s opinion on paper

If you ask a child what they thought of the school, my guess is they’d probably say “Yeah, it was good / not great.”  But this isn’t going to be much help when trying to weigh up the options at a later date, so I would suggest a more formal approach with open questions and ratings.

As an idea, grab a piece of paper and do a formal review with the child, perhaps even getting an overall total score for the night and school. This might even be best done when you jump into the car after the open night when the experience is still fresh. This might be useful when the time comes to makes that ultimate school decision.

For example:

  • What did you think of the buildings? Answer between 1-10 (10 being best)
  • What did you think of the other pupils – did they seem happy? Answer between 1-10 (10 being best)
  • What did you think of the teachers? Answer between 1-10 (10 being best)
  • What did you think of the after-school clubs? Answer between 1-10 (10 being best)
  • What did you like the most about the school?
  • What did you like the least about the school?
  • Can you see yourself coming to this school?

Tip 17. Don’t think you can do two open nights on the same day

If two of your potential schools are on the same day, don’t think you’ll (easily) be able to squeeze them in and do both.

I would recommend you choose your favourite and spend some quality time at the open night and then arrange a private appointment with the other school to have a look around at a later date (most schools offer this if the open night time was unsuitable) during the normal school day.

Alternatively, you could work with a friend or partner, and you go visit one and let them visit the other – then compare notes later.

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