Questions to ask at Secondary School Open Days

secondary school open days what to ask

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been doing the rounds of the local secondary school open days.

Aside from spending about 90% of my time thinking, “Wasn’t this all so much bloody simpler when you just went to the school up the road?” I’ve also been agonising over which school to choose.

Which isn’t surprising, considering I did EXACTLY the same seven years ago when we were choosing a primary school. Poor Flea was registered at four schools up until a week before term started.

But honestly, how the jiggins am I supposed to know which school is “BEST”?

Why are Secondary School Open Days so Confusing?

We traipse around secondary school open days, looking at facilities and wall displays and chatting with the (almost certainly) carefully selected, well-dressed, well-mannered student guides.

In lots of respects, we’re lucky – our area has three or four well-performing high schools, none of which are particularly over-subscribed, along with three or four good private schools, all of which are reasonably affordable for a family like ours, with one child and two working parents (at a pinch).

So, we look at language suites and sports halls and do science experiments in labs and I’m sure they’re all perfectly fine. I’m sure Flea would be perfectly fine.

I ask about exam results and extra-curricular clubs and class sizes and GCSE options and university admissions. But it feels like I’m missing the point of secondary school open days.

What I Really Want to Know

Because what I really want to know is whether my child is going to be ignored? If she doesn’t excel at music or sport, does she still matter?

I want to know if teachers and adults in the school talk to pupils with respect or just demand it from kids without question.

I want to know how strict the school is about things like make-up and skirt length. Because my child will very much still be a child when she starts secondary school, and I will expect her to look like one.

Seriously. When I see school kids caked in make-up it takes everything I have not to pull over the car and tell them, seriously, this is as good as they will EVER look and now’s the time to rejoice in not actually needing make-up on a daily basis.

I want to know if it’s the sort of place that will overlook a quiet, well-behaved child who does well without being pushed. Is it the sort of place that will push her to excel – because while I’m all sorts of laid back about primary school, I think results matter in secondary education, and I want Flea to have all the choices in the world when she hits 16, or 18.

I want to know if it’s the sort of place where someone will ask my child what’s wrong if she seems upset.

Will people in the school know her name? There are some ridiculously HUGE schools in our area, and I can’t help but think how easy it must be for kids to get lost in them. Literally and metaphorically.

Flea’s loved her primary school and I’ve loved it, too. Because it feels like she’s in a place where the teachers know her well, and care about her wellbeing, as well as her education.

Secondary school, after being coddled for so many years, well, it feels like a scary step for me as much as Flea. That makes secondary school open days really important.

And actually, I suspect it’s me who is feeling a bit lost. Because it’s important, isn’t it? Compared to nursery, and primary school, this is Big Stuff. If we get it wrong, it could actually have life-long consequences. And I’m not entirely sure I’m qualified to make that sort of decision.

Would love to hear tips from other parents of 10 year olds. How are you coping? What questions are you asking?


25 thoughts on “Questions to ask at Secondary School Open Days”

  1. Sally, I think this is one where asking parents whose kids go to that school is really helpful. Even observing what they say about the school on social media in general is revealing.

    We started looking in Y5 because we have such a choice. I also think it’s not just the guides but the children helping around the school that reveal a lot. Anyway, we got a good feel for our favourites and just went back to those.

    One thing I look for is inclusiveness. Our first choice lets anyone who wants to be in their annual dance show be in it. Last year,that was a third of the whole school. And it’s one of the bigger schools in the area.

    Finally, if you think that open days are false, most are happy to take you found on a normal school day if you ring to arrange. It gives a different view of the atmosphere and what it’s really like.

    1. Yes, I have chatted with other parents but I think it’s all very mixed and ultimately you need to go with your gut feeling as to where your kids will be happy. Tricky, though, and I’m sure most of us worry about whether it’s the “right” choice.

  2. I have one going next year too and although I have already two in the state secondary system, I am looking at it all again with fresh eyes. One of the most important things I think, is pastoral care and as you say, how do they motivate the quiet ones who do ok/well most of the time? I’m pleased with our secondary school on the whole and I still believe firmly in supporting the state education system if you have a good school nearby.

  3. I have found it all rather stressful, but perhaps I have been over thinking it. We have done a lot of chatting to families whose kids already go to those schools. We have also done trial runs. Yes I am that anal as each of the schools Maxi could go to is a bus ride away 2 on public transport 1 a free bus and 1 a private bus. Plus I visited the top two in school hours rather than just the open evenings.

    Now I will worry till March as the one we have chosen as Number one is the furthest away, a faith school and the smallest. But it was the one that we all agreed on (even Mini).

    Now if he doesn’t get out first or second choice we may have to look at other options.

  4. All your concerns and considerations are great – I didn’t excell academically at my school so I didn’t matter and I felt it. I would also consider where her friends are going. It’s not the most important thing but it’s nice to start a new school with a group of close friends already formed. And if you respect the parents of these friends it confirms your choice to be a good one. One more thing – how much are the parents involved in the school and how much is the school involved in the wider community? Schools that are open to the wider community and parental involvment are ususally more open to suggestions and changes if they need to be made rather than closing ranks and being rigid.

    1. Her friends are splitting up all over – some will go the senior school linked to her primary, others to entirely new towns, and others to local schools so the nice thing is wherever Flea goes she’s bound to know some children in her new class.

  5. I’m in this position too and I can relate to your questions. In fact we had a private meeting with the head and asked all kinds of ‘weird’ questions that I’m sure he’s not been asked before. We also visited our first choice school during lesson time to see how things really were. I’m terrified, this is the stage it all went horribly wrong with my older two and I couldn’t bare it if I got it wrong again.
    Saying that I’m sure that you will make the right choice. Keep your head and keep talking to Flea too. It’s really good to talk to other parents and children from the schools you are thinking of applying for, although make sure you ask a few because if they have different opinions in might be a sign of problems.

  6. Losing sleep over which schools to select here too but am going to go with my initial instincts because they’re always right. Like you, we have a few good ones, for which I am also grateful, and although results can be impressive, they don’t tell the whole story, as you suggest. A friend of mine has a dyslexic daughter and was told in no uncertain terms she wouldn’t get supported at one school, yet was welcomed with open arms and invited to explore a centre for additional learning resources at another – the one whose results weren’t as impressive – yet undoubtedly the one where her daughter will be able to fulfil her potential. Confidence is key, and that’s just a gut feeling. Good luck!

  7. Yes, all chimed with me too… We have a very good secondary in the next road, which most of eldest’s friends are also likely to be going to… As she’s the introverted one of my two, I almost feel this is more important for her than going somewhere that might be marginally “better”, but where she doesn’t know anyone.

    I’ve spent years confidently declaring to all and sundry that ” it’s a no brainer for us “, but actually putting the choice down was a lot harder than I anticipated, and brought all kinds of doubts to the surface that I hadn’t expected. As you say, this one feels like there is so much more at stake…

    Good luck with Flea’s choices!

  8. We ask about class sizes and how long they get on each subject, we ask what their mobile phone policy is and how long their lunch hour is, about clubs and after school activities, about homework and how often and when it has to be handed back in. I have got more strident with my questions the more schools I’ve seen; asking blatantly about their behaviour policy and whether the disruptive kids that got kicked out of one school had ended up at another, or whether the head had any plans to lengthen the school day and tragically short lunch break and then arguing why he should. Only one school has actually detailed how they care for each individual child, how they ensure teachers are always their best, what they do if kids are struggling and how they’re determined that 100% of the kids will leave with 5 A* to C. Unsurprisingly, it’s my top choice but we don’t stand much chance of getting in there sadly.
    I do think that if parents are paying attention to their kids’ education and the kids are generally happy then they will probably be ok at most schools. It does feel stressful, but I am reminding myself that in a year’s time when she is settled in and happy it won’t seem as bad. Good luck.

  9. My kids are older than this (my youngest is in Year 8) but I’d say don’t write off large schools without looking at them very carefully first. How children are valued individually depends on how schools are organised and led and what the Head is like more than anything. Also remember that your 10 year old will be at the school until they are 18, so the nurturing and coddling that you like now may not be the thing in a few years time!

    1. Agreed – I think it’s a generational thing – I went to a school with 500 kids and the local schools now are 3 times the size – scary! My niece’s school is very big and it’s organised into colleges and really well supported. But I still think it’s nicer if kids know most of the teachers and most of the teachers know the kids. Old school, literally!

  10. My daughter is in her final Primary year and my gut is in knots about having to ‘do the rounds’ of School open days come Jan/Feb 2016. My mind physically will not allow me to believe that this needs to be done and the sheer thought of my little 11yr old girl going off to her first year of High school next September can’t even compute.

    So…as unhelpful as my comment was, {lol!} once I figure out how to cope, I’ll let you know. I suppose all we CAN do is go round the schools and let the child decide. Which school made HER feel most comfortable, because it’s not us going, it’s them. Which school would SHE prefer to attend and just go from there.

    1. You’re lucky to have so much time – Flea’s in her last primary year and her applications for secondary school need to be in over the next few weeks. EEK!

  11. One of the things that’s very hard to get used to when your child goes to secondary school is how closed the doors are. In primary school, parents who help out are welcome, and there are lots of events you can go along to (sports day, Macmillan coffee morning, etc). Secondary school isn’t like that at all (in my experience). Parents evenings are pretty much the sum total of how much you’re allowed over the threshold. So a good thing to think about when looking round might be how you feel about the place swallowing your child up without you, and how much you trust the people inside it. Maybe a good question would be one about parental involvement, communication with parents, etc.

    1. I now feel horribly guilty for not have been involved in any coffee mornings or school activities! But you’re right, I’m expecting it to be a really big change.

  12. We have another year before having to apply, but we have to decide before June whether she should take the 11+ (or whatever the hell it’s called these days), as we’re in a grammar school area. This totally and utterly complicates it. My instinct is to Comprehensive all the way. I believe in the ideal of Comprehensive education. But… when you’re in a grammar area, comprehensives are not the same as they are in areas that don’t have grammars. Because the grammars have culled a large chunk of the more academically strong, so you then don’t have a fully representative mix.

    She wants to go to the comprehensive, because that’s where most people from her primary school end up. Last year, every single one of them (15 of them) went to the local comprehensive. I went there. (Because the girls’ grammar wouldn’t let me start a year early – I got 100% in my 11+.)

    Actually, my having gone there in some ways puts me off – I would almost certainly have done better academically at one of the grammars. But socially? Not so sure. I had, and still do, a wide range of friends. The ones I ended up with were the ones who also could have gone to grammar but whose parents were ideologically opposed, or something. I was not in any way whatsoever pushed, and pretty much coasted my way through until sixth form, when I couldn’t be bothered and skived off loads and didn’t get the A levels I needed for my courses.

    But I turned out pretty fine. Run my own successful business, own my own home, in a happy relationship, etc. etc.

    When I read the prospectuses recently, the two that jumped out was the comprehensive where I went (walking distance) and the top grammar (they take something like the top 0.5% in the test, I think) which is a long bus journey away. The girls grammar (walking distance) put me off incredibly because *all* their prospectus talked about was uniform and decorum. I don’t give a toss about either and I can’t imagine Rosemary being at home in a school where uniform and hair rules are the be all and end all. The other grammar and the comprehensive talked about inclusion and individuality – about embracing what the child is interested in, rather than forcing them into a box. That feels important to me – while also doing pretty well in exams, and learning stuff, of course!

    We need to take her to some open days/evenings and see what she thinks – especially the grammars. If she’s really not interested in them, we can just not do the test at all, which makes things simpler, by far.

    Good luck!

  13. I feel your pain!

    Two years ago I chose a school that not one other person from Bethan’s junior school was going to and I absolutely agonised over my decision. I’m so pleased I did it though because she is so happy now – she’s massively grown in confidence and is doing so well.

    Now I’m doing it all over again with her brother!

  14. Pingback: Starting to think about Secondary School? - School Compass

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