What to look for when viewing a school: A Guide

Holly

7 Plus, 8 Plus, 11 Plus, 13 Plus, English & Maths

May 17th, 2022

What to look for when viewing a school: A Guide

Choosing a school can seem like a daunting decision for any parent. Not only are there many, varied entrance requirements to navigate, but added to this are questions over whether a school is ‘right’ for your child. Holly, an experienced teacher, examines what to look out for and what to ask, to make your visit as informative as possible


Why visiting schools in person is essential

Prospectuses and school websites are brilliant but (naturally) biased. The children are always smiling, the sun is always shining and the school orchestra is always rehearsing. While they may provide some very useful information about the curriculum and sporting opportunities, to get a real feel for the school you will need to visit it in person.

Most schools advertise open days and while these are worth visiting, they are also well prepared and planned for. There is a lot to be said for seeing a school ‘in action’, on a private visit or as part of a small group during a normal school day.

Top tip: write a list of questions before you visit. Take them with you as a ‘note’ on your mobile phone so you can glance quickly at it – no need to memorise them. 

1. Before you go: plan, plan, plan

You should have a shortlist of schools. If you visit too many, not only will it take a lot of time, but it will also make the decision harder.

Book your child off school and book extra time off work so you can go out for a coffee or hot chocolate with them afterwards and chat through your visit.

Decide which parts of the school you really want to visit, in discussion with your child, and ask for them to be included in your tour. If your child is sporty, it’s essential that you have a good understanding of the sports facilities. If your child loves drama, the theatre or performance space is essential viewing. If they are very young, you will want to see everything, and see if the place sparks their interest and imagination!

Top tip: make sure you ask to visit the dining hall. This will give you a good impression of the atmosphere of the school when not tightly controlled by teachers! It will also allow you to see what kind of food is on offer. 

2. The outline of the day

Depending on the school, there will be elements of the following: tour, talk by the Headteacher or member of the Senior Leadership Team, opportunity to meet with the SENCo (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) and a coffee and chat with staff and current parents.

Some schools will also provide lunch or snacks, so make sure you avail yourself of these as they are a great opportunity to assess the quality of the catering provision, and also to network with staff and other prospective parents.

Your opportunity to ask questions will come at various times: on the tour, at the end of a formal talk (approach the Headteacher directly at the end of their presentation rather than ask in front of the whole audience, as you are likely to get a more personalised response), and in the networking sessions which usually take place at the very start and end of the day. 

Top tip: stay for as long as you can: don’t miss an opportunity to glean a real impression of the school by observing different parts of the day

3. First impressions count

First impressions matter, and should be top of your list.

If you have booked an individual visit and tour, does the staff member you are meeting greet you by name? Do they know about your child, and, if they are with you (which is ideal) do they also greet them by name and seem to show an interest in them? Is there a set itinerary which you are given in advance? Do you have a specific member of staff who will manage your visit, and be available for any questions?

A personal approach from the school is best here, and shows they care about your child; after all, this is the most important thing going forward. 

Top tip: do the staff greet you by name? Are they friendly and approachable? Will your child feel happy and comfortable with these people?

4. The Tour – what to look for

Often school tours are undertaken by current pupils: this is excellent and should not be seen as a negative. They will talk you through their permitted topics but will then often go ‘off-piste’ and tell you the truth!

The pupils giving the tour will have been chosen by staff as they are high achievers or sporty, and hopefully will match to your child’s interests: if they do, this is a good indication that the school has considered your child as an individual even before they have arrived. This would place a school high up the list for me.

Tours should include as standard: a classroom with pupils learning productively (this does not mean quietly – active, exciting classes can be noisy and fun!), a tour of the sports facilities (ideally with pupils playing sport) and a look at the music/ dance/ drama areas (ideally with a chance to meet key staff).

If there is anything specific you would like to see, and you haven’t previously requested it, don’t be afraid to ask. 

Top tip: ask the pupils questions, and see if they will talk directly to your child – this is a good sign that they are a friendly bunch!

5. Essential questions to ask

Think about your child and what is important to you and to them.

There are pastoral, academic and additional aspects to this.

Are you looking for small class sizes because you feel they are best suited to a small, personalised environment, or would they thrive in a busy setting with a diverse range of pupils and staff? Do you need to see the SENCo as your child has extra needs (dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, ASC etc.)? Do you need wrap-around care due to work commitments (so before and after school clubs would be essential)? Do you need school transport?

One parent suggests asking specifically about pastoral processes in the school. All schools will have students and children with pastoral issues that require support so it is worth seeing how open the school is about this. Good, robust systems that provide support and and a safe environment for children is essential.

Academically, how are the pupils set? Mixed-ability classes have their advantages if your child is mid-range, but may not be best for top-range pupils, for example.

It’s also worth enquiring about life after school and where students end up. Is there a focus solely on university entry or is there a space for alternatives? Are there established links with employers and a good, engaging careers programme?

If you don’t understand the answer to your question because jargon has been used (acronyms, for example), ask for an explanation.Just because we all went to school does not mean we should be expected to understand everything that happens there now!  

Top tip: some schools love to use jargon, facts and figures. If these don’t work for you, ask for an explanation in plain English. 

6. Key staff to meet

Pastorally, a good member of staff to meet is going to be your child’s prospective Head of Year. Usually a school will also have a tutor system, and within the year group your child will be assigned a specific member of staff who is responsible for their well-being. 

Academically, it would be good to meet a Head of Department for a subject your child is particularly interested in, or for one in which they struggle, so you can see what support is available. Some schools will run extra sessions, sometimes called ‘clinics’, for catch up, so ask about these.

In terms of additional requirements, you will need to meet with the SENCo if your child has additional needs. If they are not available on the day of your visit, try to arrange this for a future date, even if it is just a phone call. You need to know if this is the right school for your child if they need extra support. 

It is also good practice for the Senior Leadership Team to be present. Are they approachable? Would you be happy with them dealing with a serious incident involving your child? How do you feel about them running the school?

Think critically, as if this is a business (which it might be if it’s an independent school). They are effectively the management committee, and they make the key decisions. There might also be a school governor there – a great person to talk to to get a ‘feel’ for the school – they are almost always volunteers, and are incredibly dedicated individuals who give up their time to support pupils and staff. 

Top tip: are staff smiling and happy? Are they approachable and do they seem keen to chat?

7. Your overall impression

Take some time and make some notes after your visit.

Was there anything you weren’t sure about or anything you would like to follow up? Make sure you’ve got an email address before you leave to which you can direct questions, and give feedback. Always start with the positives – after all, your child might go to the school, and you want to give a good first impression yourself! You might find it helpful to make a list of pros and cons if you have a choice of schools, and this can be a useful tool.

However, it is more than likely that your child will help you make the decision, and that they have already decided how they feel about the school. If you don’t necessarily agree, give it some time and some thought, and see if the school can put you in touch with a current parent who will be able to give you some insights over coffee and a chat. Good luck, and do remember that Owl Tutors is here to help with schools advice whenever you need it!

Top tip: ask us for help here at Owl Tutors if you need school specific advice from our team of experienced tutors: we can help you find the right school for your child. 


More about Holly

Holly qualified as a teacher in English in 2009, and now works as a tutor with Owl Tutors.

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