Its Open Day season, so the BBC – whose mission is to inform, educate and entertain – have combined all three kinds of advice in their Family and Education news page item School open days: eight things to look for. They ask ‘How can parents get behind the glossy prospectuses and slick presentations and decide whether this is the school for their child?’ Advice is given by three notables: former Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw; General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Geoff Barton; and acting Chief of the organisation Parentkind, the umbrella group for PTAs and similar, Michelle Doyle Wildman. They don’t always agree.
I thought I’d put a Tallis take on the tips in the hope of being helpful. We have Open Evening next week and then a weekly opportunity to come and see us at work on Tuesday mornings. For the record, our prospectus is matt not glossy, and slick would be accidental. We aim for honest and hope you also get engaging!
BBC Tip 1: Quiz those handpicked pupils who show you around
‘Handpicked’ suggests we send you round school with only the cleanest and shiniest students who’ve been trained up to say particular and positive things. On Open Evening we ask for volunteers, from children whose attendance and behaviour deserve recognition. On Open Mornings, however, we’ll dragoon a whole class or more to take people round. The only children we don’t use are those who are too shy to talk to strangers – and even then sometimes we pair them up so you might get a silent and loquacious duo. No one has a script. They say what they think is important and answer your questions honestly. If they make stuff up, we have no way of knowing. Adults wait at the return point, and you can ask for interpretation then if your guide has befuzzled you.
Sir M says ‘ask them about progress since primary schools and if they’re in sets or mixed-ability classes.’ It sounds as though he has a view on the superiority of the former over the latter, for which there is no evidence. We’ll tell you about class organisation in our talk. Asking children how they think they’re doing is a sensible idea, though some year 7s will be going over previous learning – especially in maths – to check it hasn’t fallen out of their heads since the SATs.
BBC Tip 2: Ask to go to the toilet
You’re very welcome to go to the loo at Tallis. Geoff Barton says that ‘the toilets pupils use say a lot about a school’s values’ and that is also true. Be our guest.
BBC Tip 3: Bring your child
Of course. Michelle Doyle Wildman says ‘Gauge their reaction, let the visit sink in’ rather than asking what they think straight away. Can I be honest? Choosing a school is a parent’s job. Children know too little about anything to make an informed choice. Of course, if a child declares he won’t eat or sleep if he has to go to Gasworks High and you think Bog Standard Comp is just as good, that’s a reasonable discussion. Don’t let your child make what you think is a bad choice. It’s not fair on them, and it will lead to endless unhappy conflict between school, parents and child.
BBC Tip 4: Listen to the HT speech
Well hello there. What a rare treat that will be. Naturally the Head will educate, inform and entertain with matchless erudition, learning and good sense. I’m unscripted, but we always talk about children’s experience and our hope to fulfil our aim of education to understand the world and change it for the better.
Sir M says ‘leadership is everything in a school…... make sure he or she talks about progress and outcomes and is the sort of person and personality that will drive the school forward’. I’m not sure that leadership is everything. Leaders have to provide the conditions for success, but a good school is a good school because everyone there believes in it and works to make it better.
We will talk about progress and achievement at our Open Evening but the structure of the new system means that we might not have our GCSE Progress 8 result before the day. That result shows how well we’ve done compared to all other schools. I’ll tell you the scores, but they are a bit meaningless without comparison. I’ll also tell you what we’re working on and what we’re proud of, and what our priorities for the year are. I may mention in passing that we got 7 young people into Oxford and Cambridge this year, 2 into Central St Martin’s and 180 into university. I well may.
It’s rare that results are the biggest issue for prospective year 7 parents, to be honest. We’re more likely to be asked about the curriculum, happiness and the prevalence or absence of bullying. That’ll be why Michelle Doyle Wildman says ‘is the school taking a whole-child approach or is it more focused on the academic achievement? That’s a nuance you want to get in this process of looking at schools’.
Two different bits of advice there, folks. At Tallis, we’re whole-child-focused. We don’t look on children as output or yield for the good of the school, and we believe that school is where society looks after its young until they’re old enough to take on the mantle of adult citizens. We want to help them become rounded, self-regulating, kind and useful people. We want them to be well qualified, but we don’t judge the worth of a child by her potential exam results.
BBC Tip 5: Ask tough questions
We like that. Ask away. Sir M says they should be about progress, strategies, interventions, provision for underachievers and destinations. Ask us anything.
BBC Tip 6: Take a good look at the teachers
Geoff Barton says that the teachers ‘should look like a corporate body, welcoming and keen to talk about the school’. I’m wary of corporate looks, so you won’t find us in matching outfits, but we will be welcoming and talk about Tallis until you beg us to stop.
Sir M says ‘Do they look professional? Do they look like teachers? Are they well turned-out?’ What does a teacher look like? My mother and grandmother were both teachers – is that what they look like? Tweed jackets? M&S Suits? Knee-length skirt and sensible shoes? Heels and a silk scarf? A good teacher has a glittering eye and can’t stop talking about the wonders of the subject. He or she may be slightly unkempt from running fingers through hair for a large part of the day. Or damp round the edges from yard duty. Or covered in paint, sawdust, or whiteboard grime. Or carrying piles of books. Or in a tracksuit. It’s whether they seize and hold your attention that’s important. Look out for that.
Sir M says – ask about ‘unfilled teaching vacancies and the number of temporary or supply teachers’? That’s a good question in an obvious way. We have hardly any: 3 temporary teachers out of a force of 120. One of those is covering a maternity leave. Does that count? Another is a bit of extra staffing we put in just in case. Another is in a subject area of serious national shortage.
There are 40,000 fewer teachers than we need in our school system. If a school has loads of temporary or supply teachers it might be because it isn’t a good place to work, but it’s more likely to be because there simply aren’t enough teachers. That’s a national scandal, not one school’s fault.
BBC Tip 7: Visit again at home-time
If you like being surrounded by hundreds, even thousands of teenagers then home-time is just the place for you. If you are of a more timid disposition, you might want to watch from a distance. Sir M says is ‘uniform still worn properly, whether they’re congregating outside fast-food outlets misbehaving..…are there staff outside the school?’ All those are good to see, but schools are not police and the amount of time we can spend outside school supervising the streets is limited. At Tallis we enforce a curfew point at the Dover Patrol shops at 1600, but after that it is reasonable to expect parents to take responsibility for their offspring’s whereabouts.
BBC Tip 8: Write the date on your calendar
This may fall into the category of cross-eyed face and banging head on table. Of course you would.
We hope you come to see us next week and at other points if you would like to. We hope you find us engaging and interesting. We hope you’d entrust your child to us. Most of all, we hope you find us honest and humane partners in the crucial business of raising our children together. Welcome to Tallis!