May have seen an “open day” advertised for your local ECE or school, and wondered what that’s all about. Yvonne Walus explains why it’s a good idea to go along to an open day.
First, a caveat: Don’t stress about choosing the right school because most children do well no matter where they go. However, choosing the wrong school for your child can potentially impact your child’s academic and personal development, so perhaps it does make sense to conduct some due diligence.
An open day is a scheduled time when a school allows members of the public to visit the premises. This provides a unique opportunity to explore the physical environment, meet the teachers, and gain insights into the school’s culture. Typically, families choose a school based on a combination of things, but their gut response to the atmosphere at the open day is one of the deciding factors. Once you have a shortlist of schools you’re interested in, it makes sense to come in and get a feel for the place, see the students’ projects, ask questions. Schools usually advertise their open days on the website and on the billboard outside; you can also contact the office for the dates.
Why do schools have open days?
Think of the open day as the school’s sales pitch – naturally, they’ll try to present themselves in the best light possible in order to attract students. Nevertheless, you will be able to experience the school’s vibe, see the resources, and judge whether the teachers and students are genuinely content. You can also deduce the school’s priorities from what they discuss at length and what is missing from the presentation. For example, if the school keeps boasting about the latest model laptops in the information technology centre but doesn’t mention music instruments like electric keyboards, you might wonder how important the arts are to the leadership team.
Sometimes open days take place during school hours, with prospective parents and pupils walking in and out of classrooms observing the flow of a normal day. In other instances, open days are more formal affairs, with a speech from the principal, an opportunity to meet the Board of Trustee members, and chosen pupils showing you around the empty school.
Here are some things to consider while you’re attending an open day, and questions to ask.
Ages and stages: Early Childhood Education (ECE) centres
Starting daycare or kindy is often emotionally charged for both you and your child. Open days offer you a chance to meet the caregivers and explore the physical setting, ensuring that everything meets your expectations of a safe and stimulating learning environment (dress-ups, blocks, books, games, musical instruments, art supplies).
Questions to ask:
- What feedback will you get about your child’s day?
- Is there a shaded and fenced off play area outside?
- What security protocols are there for pick-up?
- What’s the typical weekly menu or, if you bring your own lunches, what are the guidelines?
- What does the napping area look like?
- What’s the staff turnover like?
Ages and stages: Primary school
As your child progresses to primary school, attending open days allows you to gain a deeper understanding of the school’s overall approach to education as well as its values: Do they have a garden the children help tend, do they limit electronic devices, is there a library on the premises and a regular time slot in the timetable when children read for pleasure?
Questions to ask:
- What are the school’s values (such as a love of nature, sustainability, child-centric learning)?
- Will your child have fun and fit in?
- How do they teach reading, and what happens if a child falls behind?
- Does the school offer swimming lessons?
- Does it have before- and after-school care on site?
- Do they have school uniforms?
Ages and stages: Intermediate Schools
The purpose of intermediate school is to prepare your child for college. You will expect to see a timetable, and a mixture of homeroom learning and labs for specialised subjects such as Information Technology, Fine Arts, Music, Food Science.
Questions to ask:
- What subject choices does the school offer?
- Does the school take part in extracurriculars like EPRO8, orienteering competitions, chess tournaments, art shows?
- Is there a school bus?
- Is the bike shed secure?
- What does the lunch area look like? Is it sheltered?
- Do they have scheduled PE or exercise sessions?
- What college does the school feed to?
Ages and stages: College
Open days at this level will help your child make informed choices about their future academic endeavours. These events often include sessions on subject choices and career guidance, as well as an opportunity to chat to subject-specific teachers about their methodologies and the curriculum. In addition, you will get a glimpse into the college’s drama clubs, music bands, sports, and other enrichment programs.
You will also discover how big the college is in terms of buildings and enrolments – some teenagers prefer large anonymous schools while others thrive when they can be a big fish in a small pond. Try to figure out whether the management genuinely cares about the students or only about the school’s reputation.
Questions to ask:
- What examination does the college offer: NCEA, Cambridge, International Baccalaureate (IB)?
- What subject choices are available and how does the school deal with any subject clashes?
- How they cater for underachievers and gifted students?
- Does the college have facilities that align with your child’s interests; for example, a theatre, a music studio, a gym, a pool?
- Do they cater for your child’s favourite sport? If it’s a large school, do they have a B team?
- Does the school have a cafeteria/tuck shop with acceptable food choices?
- Is there a different uniform for juniors and seniors? Do Year 13s wear a school uniform or mufti? Is there a non-gendered option?
- How they approach neurodiversity in students?
All ages and stages
Include your child in the school visit – their instincts are as important as yours. At the end of the open day, no matter how great a school looks and what reputation it has – if your child hates it, it’s not the right match.
Questions to ask:
- What’s the plan for children whose home language is not English? (Even if that’s not applicable to your family, the answer will showcase the school’s values.)
- How do they handle bad behaviour? (“Zero tolerance” is sometimes not the best policy, as it doesn’t allow for nuances and special cases.)
- How much parental involvement is encouraged?
- How do they track student progress and how do they communicate any concerns to the parents?
- What recovery pathways are there for students who are not achieving?
- Ask the teachers why they chose to work at this school. Look for enthusiasm, a caring attitude, and a real love of teaching.
In addition to open days
Sometimes attending the open day may leave you with more questions than answers. Here are a few more ways to gather information:
- Schedule a meeting with the principal or dean.
- Ask for a personal tour of the school when it’s in session.
- Attend a school event: A concert, a play, a market day, a charity evening.
- Drive past the school during drop-off and pick-up and feel the vibe. Are the kids happy going in and coming out? Are they behaving or being unruly?
- Read the ERO reports (online at ero.govt.nz/review-reports).
- Engage with the school’s social media presence.
- Ask parents who already have children at the school what they love and don’t love about the experience.
University open days and career expos
- Open days are your chance to explore university facilities, chat with potential future lecturers, hear from current students, and maybe even get tours of student accommodation. If you think your child might consider tertiary education, it’s useful to attend your local university’s open days as early as Year 9, even if they are planning to study in another city or country. This is because you might want to visit several faculties, for example, med school and the chemistry labs, or the maths building as well as the engineering lectures. It’s also a good idea to attend virtual tours in other regions, or even make a point of travelling there if you can spare the money.
- Career expo events are an opportunity for students to talk face to face with a range of employers, industry, government departments, and training providers, including vocational pathways.