Taking a tour during a regular working day is a vital ingredient in a family’s decision-making process when choosing a new school.
If formal Open Days encourage schools to present themselves in a glossy, post make-over, pimped, Gok Wan-esque style, then the post-offer weekday tours are, most definitely, the minimal make-up, comfortable underwear, flat shoed version of the institution and are, let’s face it, much closer to the real, day-to-day experience of being a student there.
Monday 3rd March 2014 is ringed on many Cheshire calendars (the date on which we send out 11+ offers), and marks the beginning of a ten day period when families revisit schools on tours, to firm up their choices. Interestingly, visitors tend to fall into three distinct groups; the ‘decided’ – just back for a confirmation visit, the ‘undecided’ – genuinely torn between two or more schools, and the ‘split decision’ families – where one or other parent favours a different school, or where parents want the child to accept a particular school, but the child has other ideas! Certainly, for the latter two groups, the final tour is an incredibly important experience.
There is plenty of good advice around about what to look for on a school tour. The best I have come across is The Good Schools’ Guide’s excellent and comprehensive article entitled ‘What Parents Look For When Choosing A School’, which lists clear and sensible points to consider.
Having just spent an inordinate amount of time in the half-term break hunting on Trip Advisor, moderating searches on Booking.com and reading a vast array of travel articles whilst organising a pretty complicated summer holiday for a family of five – all with slightly different priorities – I was reminded of how easy it is to be bamboozled by advice overload. The last part of my travel jigsaw, the challenge of finding an affordable venue for a four-day stay in Venice, slotted into place for me when I came across a great article by Suzanne Moore in The Guardian about a recent trip; one email and I was sorted, thanks to some specific insider advice.
So, in the hope that some insider advice of the educational variety might help you to make the most of your tour, these are the five questions you might have in mind when touring.
- Is this school a practical option for the whole family? Consider ease of journey, cost and timings of buses, proximity to a station, safety of the immediate environment and local area, term dates matching those of siblings, possibility of younger siblings also joining the school.
- Are the basics in place to ensure an effective daily routine? Early arrival and after school care provision, school catering, lockers and storage, access to a library or other learning areas, availability of computers or iPads at school, access to online learning material from home, decent toilets, good play spaces, nice classrooms, pleasant communal areas, first aid provision, effective communication with parents.
- Is the school academically ambitious? Find out about tracking, value added, extension opportunities, support for anyone struggling, curriculum reviews, subject mentoring. Is the teaching exciting, fresh, stimulating? Is there clear evidence of learning in the lessons, on the walls, in the students’ files and books? Ask about leavers destinations, support for university applications, careers advice.
- What is on offer beyond the classroom? Ask about the full range and involvement levels for trips, clubs, sport, music, drama, societies, community service, leadership opportunities, links with business and other institutions.
- Do the students you see model the qualities you want your child to have by the time they leave the school? Talk to students in lessons you visit, watch their interactions at lesson changeover, stop and ask them about their school experiences. Equally important are the staff. Are the teachers friendly, committed, inspiring? Are the support staff approachable, professional, happy to be there?
Finally, and probably most importantly, trust your instincts. Families often talk about the ‘feeling’ they get from a school visit, that intangible gut reaction which convinces you that this is the right place for your child. What made me book the little apartment in Venice recommended in The Guardian was not price, location or facilities but a sense, looking at the photo of the pretty walled courtyard garden, that we would just love being there…it felt right.
That’s what you’re after when it comes to a school for your child. Of course, my decision will only effect a few days of my life, whereas your choice of a Senior School is for seven years. No pressure, then!
Assistant Head (Admissions), Mrs Sally Petrie