Open Evenings and School Visits

There are two other key areas to focus upon for the open evening and visit, and they have been given sections to themselves – Buildings and Environment and Facilities and Resources.

Open Evening

An open evening is an important event which can help you decide which school is right for your child.

Quick Check

 It can help with the answers to key questions:

  • will your child be safe?
  • will your child be happy?
  • will your child be able to learn without distractions?
  • is there a culture of learning at the school?
  • is the teaching good?
  • Listen to the Head teacher’s speech, question the teachers and students, take note of the displays and read between the lines of the demonstrations.
  • It is important to remember that the school’s open evening is a ‘show’. It is not necessarily representative of what the school is like day to day. Some very successful schools put on very good shows. However, some schools that are desperate for clientele also pull all the stops out for this event. So, just because there are six different science experiments going on, violinists on the stairs, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the drama hall do not assume that it is necessarily going to be the ‘right’ school.
  • However, if a school makes no effort at all for open evening, then this is a cause for concern. It could be a sign of indifference, crisis or complacency, all states that are not conducive to your child’s success.
  • Most open evenings consist of tours round the school, various performances, demonstrations, and speeches, usually from the Head teacher, and sometimes from the Head of Year who will be responsible for Year 7. Often, students themselves are on hand to give the tours.

School Visits

It is vital to see the school in action, as well as attending the open evening.

Quick Check

If the school offers tours during the school day, a pro-active parent should take them up on it. If it does not, ring and ask if you can be shown round. If the school is reluctant then this is a cause for concern.

  • It is worth taking time off work and taking your child out of school for a visit to their prospective secondary. A child will have to attend school during the day, so it is essential that they see what the school is like during that time.
  • An alternative tactic is to telephone in advance and ask to be taken round at a time when official tours are not offered.
  • No school can cover up what it is really like during its school day, even during a planned visit.
  • It is important that on a planned school visit the Head teacher makes herself or her deputy available. If this does not happen, then the school is not taking its future intake seriously enough, maybe because it is complacent, or maybe because it is disorganised.

Open Evenings – detailed check

The Head Teacher’s Speech

At most open evenings, there will be a Head teacher’s speech. Undoubtedly, a head teacher can make or break a secondary school; so it is worth paying attention.

  • When the Head is speaking, try to decide whether you like and trust them, because if you choose their school, you are going to have to develop an effective working relationship which lasts for at least five years. If the Head is inspirational, that, of course, is a very good sign. If they inspire you, they are likely to inspire your child. It is a good sign if the Head talks about vision and direction in a way that makes you think they really have a sense of where the school is going. The overall focus of the speech will give you some idea of what the Head’s priorities are.
  •  For example: Do they emphasise the caring ethos of the school? Do they emphasise the academic record of the school? Do they focus on the high achievers, or on the achievement of all students? Do they talk as if they know the students and interact with them, or do they present as someone more detached? It depends on what your priorities are for your child, as to which of these areas will be most important.
  • It might be that you want to speak directly to the Head teacher before choosing the school for your child. If you decide to do this at the open evening, it is important that you ask a question that will tell you something about the Head. A lot of parents ask the Head teacher about bullying, because it is something about which they are concerned. However, the answer to this question will have been well rehearsed. A friend of mine, when choosing a school for his daughter, asked each Head,‘How long does it take to mend a broken window at this school?’ He felt this was a good question because it took the Head teacher by surprise, so he received an answer that was unprepared. It told him whether it was important to the Head to take pride in his school and keep it well maintained. It told him whether the Head teacher was concerned with detail, and had a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude. It told him how quickly things got done in the school.

Staff at the Open Evening

Head of Year or House

The Head of Year or Heads of House will be present at the open evening. The quality of the person looking after a student in their first year of secondary education is crucial, particularly in a large school, where a child may have little contact with the staff member managing their progress. Often these staff members will give a presentation. If they don’t, it is a good idea to ask to speak to them. It is important that you and your child have faith and trust in the Head of Year or House, and have your questions satisfactorily answered. It is important to find out the following from them:

  •  How do you ensure that Year 7 students settle into the school successfully? The Head of Year or House will be responsible for the well-being of your child in their first few weeks at the school so you need to be reassured that your child’s welfare will be safe in their hands.
  • What is your policy on bullying? The Head of Year or House will be the member of staff who addresses bullying issues in the first instance, and you need to feel reassured that they would sort out any problems effectively.
  • How do you ensure children make academic progress in Year 7?

Head of Department

It is important to speak to Heads of Department, particularly in the core subject areas of English, Maths and Science and find out the answers to the following questions:

  • Have your GCSE results gone up or down in the last few years? It is important to know whether they are an improving or declining department.
  • How do you organise your classes, are they mixed ability or setted? 
  •  What extra-curricular provision do you offer? It is important to find out whether they are an enthusiastic department who go that extra distance for children.
  •  Parents should talk to the Head of Department for subjects that their child is particularly interested in, e.g. Music, and ask them the same questions as above.
  • If there is a Head of Department not attending in a core or key subject area, then you need to ask where they are. If they are just absent for the night, there is little to worry about. Their second in department can answer questions. If they are on long term absence or if there is a vacancy in the post, you need to ask a senior member of staff whether the situation is going to be resolved by the time your child arrives at the school.
  • In any school there will always be weaker subject areas, often because of staffing issues. It is rare that all three core subject areas are equally strong. You will usually have to settle for the fact that one might be ‘good enough.’ It is important, however, that you are satisfied with the core subject areas, as the qualifications they provide are the most marketable for  jobs, college and university places. If you feel that there are significant weaknesses in all three core areas, then this is a cause for concern.
  • Similarly in non-core subjects, there will always be relatively weaker areas.What you must find out at open evening is whether areas where you think your child may flourish are strong.

Other Teaching Staff

It is a good idea to chat with other teachers who are present on the evening. There are key questions to ask them, which will give you much needed information about the school. For example:

  • How long have you been at the school? This will give you an idea of staff turnover. If they have not been there long, ask them to direct you to someone who has. If they cannot find someone who has spent more than 12–18 months in their department, then this is a cause for concern.
  • What do you think of the Head? Obviously, most staff will be professional. However, if they are particularly enthusiastic, then that is a good sign. If staff are inspired, loyal and happy, then they are likely to be committed to your child. If a member of staff is disloyal, it could simply indicate a difficulty between an individual and the Head teacher. Ask other staff; if you get a similarly disloyal response, then that is definitely a cause for concern.
  • How does this school compare to others you have worked in?
  • Would you send your own children to this school? Teachers know schools. If they would consider sending their own children to the school, then this is the greatest recommendation you can get. Teachers love to talk about their job. People are rarely interested! Having a chat with staff can give you a good insider’s view of how schools compare.


When you are touring the school, look out for up to date displays that celebrate learning.

  • The standard of display should be consistent throughout the school. It is a cause for concern if there are areas where display is lacking. It should not take much for the school leadership to ensure consistency.
  • Displays of students’ work needs to be up to date. It is not a problem if some framed art work is by students long gone. However, if the majority of the students’ displayed written work is more than a term or two old, then this is a cause for concern. A good open evening should be showing off the school as it is, not as it has been.
  • Display should be labelled with students’ names and their year group. This shows attention to detail, that individual children are valued, and that the display is for the students in the school, not just for open evening attendees.
  • Display should be finished to a high standard.
  • Displayed work generally should be accurate work. Sometimes work in progress is displayed, and in this case, mistakes are part of the process. But otherwise, work should be well presented and accurately spelt. If this is not the case, staff have not checked the work carefully enough and the school may not sufficiently value accuracy.
  • In each department, students’ exercise books should be on display. If they are not, ask for them. If they are not forthcoming, then this is a cause for concern. Again, check the dates of exercise books, they should be current.Exercise books should contain mistakes. A child does not learn if they do not make mistakes. What you should be looking for is that the books are well marked. That means that there should be ticks and corrections on every page. Every two or three pages, there should be a teacher comment. An example of good marking is when the teacher comments on the work so far, and sets a target for the next couple of weeks.There should be some marking scheme evident, such as numbers or letters. If there are only ticks, this is not good marking, and is a cause for concern.Do not be put off by spelling mistakes that have apparently been ignored as long as some have been corrected. It can be demotivating to pupils to correct every mistake. If a book is really well marked, you should be able to see progress taking place. This should be acknowledged by the teacher. For example, the student should be congratulated for having achieved a target that was set earlier on.
  • A confident department will display a selection of books, not just those of the most able students. It is worth asking to see the books of pupils of all ability levels. Check to see if books have obviously been marked just for the purposes of the display. Be suspicious if pen colours don’t match up, or if the comments have clearly been added later!
  • All books should be marked, not just some.


  • It is a good sign if there are events and demonstrations given by a variety of departments. This shows a commitment to the school across the subject areas.
  •  All three core subject areas should have some kind of event or presentation. This shows they are confident and have a significant role in the school.
  • It is an encouraging sign if the presentations are well polished. However, that is not necessarily everything. For example, a school could use the same few students at every public event. A good sign is the involvement of a range of students with clearly differing abilities, even if some demonstrations are a little rough round the edges.
  • A specialist school, however, should have a demonstration or presentation in their specialism of an impressive and professional nature.


  • There should be a significant student presence at the open evening. It is a good sign if students from a range of year groups and abilities are represented.
  • You should expect the students to be presented immaculately, in full school uniform.
  • The more responsibility the students are given, the better, because it shows that the school trusts them and fosters a culture of independence.
  • Questions to ask students are covered in school visits – detailed check.


School visits – detailed check

Things to look out for on your visit:

  • Are the majority of students ‘on task’ in most of the lessons that you see? If they are, your child will get a good opportunity to learn. ‘On task’ does not necessarily mean ‘silent’. A school full of silent classes is not one that feels confident or creative enough to allow student interaction.‘Busy noise’ is a desirable state.
  • How often do you hear teachers raise their voice? Very few schools are free of shouting. Arguably, sometimes, it is appropriate for teachers to raise their voice. But if there is constant shouting, then the school may not be calm enough for your child to learn effectively. The tone of calm authority from staff is something to listen out for.
  • Is there a particular subject that seems less calm, or where students seem less focused? In this area, are there more teachers raising their voices? You need to find out if one subject area or more is weak in a school. It is a cause for concern if this area is English, Maths, or Science, or a subject that is important for your child.
  • Do you see student misbehaviour going unchallenged? Students misbehave in all schools, no matter how good they are. You should not be satisfied with misbehaviour that goes consistently unchallenged by staff, or unsuccessfully challenged. It is a cause for concern if you see misbehaviour out of lessons and teachers walking past as if it is not happening. In this instance, teachers are not taking ownership.
  • How often do you hear or see students refusing to do what they are asked? Incidences of defiance are inevitable in all schools. However, if this type of behaviour is common, the school may have serious behaviour management issues which will hinder your child’s progress.
  • Are there senior staff about? For example,on your tour, do you see a senior member of staff telling a student off, or positively interacting with them? Senior staff need to have a presence. They are the ones who need to ‘lay down the law’. They should also know the students. Visible, effective senior staff create clear boundaries within which your child can learn.You should not be satisfied if there are students misbehaving and a senior member of staff walks past and does nothing.
  • How do students greet each other and adults? Are they polite? Are they respectful? The atmosphere needs to be civilised for your child to flourish in a safe working environment.
  • Are you allowed into classrooms during lessons? If you are not the school might have something to hide. Make sure you get to see a variety of lessons.
  • What are the corridors like when lessons are going on? If there are students wandering about, then there is an issue with the management of students, which is a cause for concern.
  • Who shows you around? If a school uses students to show you around, it is a confident institution. However well students are primed, they will always give you the real picture. Make sure you get as much information out of the student guides as possible. Your child, after all, is potentially going to be in their position.
  • What is the playground environment like? Try and get shown round over a break time or lesson change over. If a student is showing you round, you will soon find out whether there are any ‘no-go’ areas. However, it is important to note that groups of adolescents are often intimidating.When they are ‘playing’ things sometimes seem more out of control than they really are. Every secondary school playground can make adults who are  not used to schools nervous. What it is important to note is whether the students showing you around are intimidated? If not, you probably have nothing to worry about. It is important to note that in most schools at lunchtimes, students are not managed only by teaching staff, but also by midday assistants. Unfortunately, in most cases these staff are not as well treated and respected by the students as teachers.This is a problem I have seen in most schools and it is not specific to successful or unsuccessful schools.
  • What are the toilets like? A level of graffiti is not unusual but is unacceptable. The students and caretaking staff really take pride in their school if there is no graffiti at all. Students always want good quality fittings and nice loo paper! So, if the toilets are in reasonable condition, it is likely that the students have a voice at the school, and they consequently take care of their environment.

There are key questions to ask the students who show you round, in order to help learn whether a school is right for your child.

  •  What do you do if you get bullied at this school? The answer you want is ‘tell a member of staff.’
  • If you get bullied, what gets done about it? The answer you don’t want is ‘nothing’. The answer you want is ‘it gets sorted out.’
  • Are there any ‘no go’ areas in the school? You want to find out, for example, if there are areas where the smokers go, or that scare the younger students. You want to know if staff are vigilant, and maintain a feeling of safety throughout the buildings and playgrounds.
  • How do older students behave towards the younger children? You want to find out whether there is the sense of a caring community.
  • What are your favourite subjects? You want answers which reveal that students like lessons where they progress and are interested in what they are learning.You want to find out whether there is a learning ethos in the school. You do not want to find out that students favour subjects because they ‘get to muck about.’ You want to find out whether there are key subject areas that are not successful in the eyes of the students. You do not want the answer, ‘Oh, nobody likes Maths here, it’s too hard.’
  • Who is your favourite teacher? You want answers where the students like teachers who encourage them to learn. ‘I like Mr G because he is fun, but we learn a lot too,’ is good, but ‘I like Mrs H because she is a laugh’ is not.
  • What do you want to do when you leave school? You want to find out whether there is an ethos of ambition backed up by knowledge. If they are intending to go to University, are many of their friends?


Case Study


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