And So It Begins

Issue 53

It may seem as if the academic year has only just begun, but banners, billboards and advertisements are publicising school open days for next year. In fact, by the time you read this, we will have held the first in our annual season as will have most of our local schools and colleges.

It can be confusing when comparing schools. In both the state and independent sector, schools and colleges are so different, and their advertising materials so plausible, that it can be very difficult to know what to look for on an open day. Of course, every school is trying to sell itself and distinguish itself from its local neighbours. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would advise parents to keep a few key things in mind when they visit any school or college.

The first thing that is likely to make an impression, but is by no means the most important, is the range of facilities the school may have. Parents are lucky in the region in that we have some schools which have facilities to rival universities. State of the art science blocks, music performance halls, even helipads – all of these can be found in independent schools in the North East. However, if you are visiting on an open day try not to be blinded by these. Instead, make sure you understand how and when these facilities are used; are they just for the elite performers or are they available for everyone? What are the opportunities for your son or daughter in these spectacular buildings?

The other easy comparator between schools are their exam results I have written in this publication many times before on school league tables and the deficiencies thereof, so I won’t repeat myself. The crucial thing is to look at the value that the school adds. Does it have a highly selective entry policy which means they take only the brightest? Or, are they a broader church who will do well by the pupils regardless of their ability? Does the school have a wide-ranging curriculum, tailored to pupils needs and interests, or is it much narrower in focus, eschewing the arts subjects, for example? Does it have specialist teachers in its subjects? Schools are battling with a huge teacher shortage issue which means that, through no fault of their own, teachers are teaching outside their degree subjects.

Finally, and most importantly, does the school feel like a “happy community”. This is something which is very difficult to judge on a fleeting visit. Pupils and staff will be on their best behaviour for all the right reasons – a loyalty and pride in their school usually being the best and most common one. There are some things to look out for though- does the school use pupils as guides? If so, is it the just the prefects or sixth formers? Or, does the school have the confidence to use a range of pupils across the ages to show you round?

What about the teachers? In the most successful schools, enthusiasm radiates out from each one that you meet. This should be an enthusiasm not just for the school but also for their subject. Would you like to be taught Chemistry or French by this teacher? If the answer is yes, then your son or daughter probably would too. Do they know the pupils and how do they interact with them? Because that of course is the most important element of any school’s success – the quality of the relationships between the staff and the pupils and, if you can discern it, amongst the pupils themselves.

So, a small checklist of things to look for. How do I know? Well, 25 years of teaching has helped but, more importantly, the feedback I have received over the years from parents at our school. Sometimes it can be nothing more than a gut feel, but if the above areas are all in place, you will know it is the right school for your child.

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