Jules White

Families looking for secondary school places will be visiting open days. Jules White gives the inside track from the perspective of the head teacher.

The daylight hours are fading and another damp summer departs. Strictly’s back for a new season and Jamie’s got another recipe book out.

Schools follow a similar pattern too. New uniform and equipment are bought, the morning run starts again.

And an event that is also becoming firmly embedded in our educational autumn calendar is the secondary school open day.

Such events give schools the opportunity to throw open their doors and inquisitive parents and children can see prospective establishments first hand.

The vast majority of schools – including my own – look forward to open evenings. It allows us to connect with families and show off just a little as well. It’s also really important that schools get the opportunity to set out their expectations and vision.

Budget pressure

There are nerves too. School budgets depend heavily on high student numbers and unfilled places can make the spectre of budget shortfalls and even redundancy become uncomfortably real.

Sometimes there are additional concerns; especially if results have not gone to plan or if public perceptions of a school are not particularly good.

Pupils

The advent of much greater public scrutiny has probably helped to drive up standards and increase competition amongst local schools.

But it makes it incredibly challenging to overcome entrenched preconceptions about a school, particularly if it is viewed negatively by the community and local media.

The difficulty is doubled if “the school down the road” is perceived as being the best around. Trying to challenge the status quo without appearing too defensive is a tricky task.

Against this background, heads and their colleagues understand that parents prize one thing above all else – their child must be happy and safe at school.

The most sensible head teachers also know that they should not “overplay their hand” and that their school – in fact any school – is often an imperfect place.

By promising the world, parents and children are more likely to be sceptical rather than impressed.

Data overload

Academic data, particularly when it shows a student’s progress, is of real importance. It’s the duty of any school to ensure that students in their care flourish and thrive academically.

But this should be balanced against a parent’s belief in the school’s leadership (including governors) and the culture and ethos.

Data on screen

During the open evening itself, I work on the premise that parents have two overriding questions in mind: “Is this the best school for my child?” and “Will we get a place?”.

As such I make my expectations about student behaviour and parental partnership crystal clear.

I also attempt to give straightforward and helpful answers about the complex minefield that is school admissions.

In our case, decisions are made on catchment area, although a statement of special educational needs or having a sibling already at school is almost certain to enable a place to be gained.

Word of mouth

In terms of choice, many parents are more savvy than some people give them credit for. They are prepared to do a lot of homework to make their own assessment of local schools.

In recent times, the Department for Education has become pre-occupied with providing parents with vast amounts of “evidence” about how good a school is. Ofsted has followed suit and parents are able to peruse data dashboards and Ofsted reports.

Inspections

Like many school leaders, however, I have reservations about the rather blunt labels that these bodies apply to schools. There is a danger that judgements such as “requires improvement” or “good” stifle more subtle and meaningful debate about a particular school’s strengths and weaknesses.

Even grading a school as “outstanding” can cause some unintended and unwanted consequences. Outstanding schools and their heads can be seen as the only ones who possess the ideas and answers from which everyone else can benefit. In my experience, this is certainly not always the case.

Parents are capable of making very sensible judgements about schools. Quite rightly, word of mouth, previous experiences and crucially, reputation, count for a great deal.

Along with a visit during the school day, parents could give more credence to such factors than to the views derived from a fleeting visit by Ofsted or a crude set of statistics.

The most confident schools have one final trick up their sleeves; they leave the promotion of their school not to adults but to the children themselves.

Pride, courtesy and genuine happiness amongst the student body will have more power than a thousand flashy items produced by extravagant technology or the slickest marketing teams.

At open evenings it is vital that head teachers assure parents – and their children – that our desire for unremitting school improvement remains at the heart of all that we do.

At times, scrutiny and questioning from parents can feel pressurised and difficult but it is our job to be open, honest and realistic in our views and opinions when helping parents find the right answer to this most important of decisions.

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