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October 10, 2018

How to get the most out of School and University Open Days

Insider’s Insight: Education Open Days

Summer already feels like a distant memory with the nights drawing in, the temperature taking an autumnal dip and even Christmas treats appearing on our supermarket shelves.

Once the new cohorts of students are settled in attention turns to the biggest event on a school college or university’s marketing calendar, open day season. Open days can start in October and continue well into February, even as late as March. Most places will offer multiple dates for students and their families to visit and see for themselves what is on offer.

But, let’s cut to the chase, an open day is a marketing exercise and every school and college will be wanting to impress so that you will choose them. Results, destinations data, state of the art facilities, excitable student advocates, examples of the best work from current students, enthusiastic teachers and approachable senior leadership teams will all be on show.

But, how do you wade through the marketing spin to get a more realistic understanding of what it will be like to study there.


First things first, we are all different and so the things that matter to you, your child and your family are likely to be different to other people. Spend some time before the event discussing what is important to you all in the next school or college. A series of questions will automatically come from this such as “Does the school have a choir and how often do they practise?” Quickly followed by, “Do they enter any competitions either locally or nationally?¨(Or possibly even internationally?)

Advice from a Cambridge Vice Principal:

Steve Dann, Vice Principal of Long Road Sixth Form College offers this advice, “It is incredibly important that students take the time to visit prospective universities, schools or colleges, as well as finding out the facts and the details. It is the only way to get a ‘feel’ for the institution, to speak to other students and get beyond the marketing speak of the prospectus. It also helps to set the college in context–what part of the city is it in? How far from the halls of residence? Where is the department located compared to the different student services? Some Open Days will offer tours of the area and require you to book these in advance, so its worth checking all the details rather than just turning up on the day itself.”


Discovering what extracurricular activities are on offer is useful, as well as subject excursions and international trips run each year. This indicates the opportunities available to students to become well rounded individuals and have new experiences both academically and culturally, all of which are a vital part of developing a world view.

Results versus value added:

Results are important but they really aren’t always the most important thing in the world for every student. Ask about value added, all schools will have an idea of what overall end grades a student with a particular grade profile is likely to get and if they are able to help students do better and how they would usually aim to achieve this. This will give you an idea of the level of personalised support available to students which may be of particular importance to international families new to the city and indeed the country.

Retention data is an additional piece of the puzzle here. That information tells you how good the school/college is at keeping hold of students once they enrol. This can indicate how effective the support is for students who have difficulties.

Approach to health and wellbeing:

Concerns about the health and well being of young people have been highlighted in the news recently, it is important to look for clues showing that a school/college is prioritising them. Look at menus in the school canteen, the availability of healthy alternatives, abundance of water fountains, sports on offer, an on site gym, well being teams, quiet spaces, counsellors, supervision during breaks, tutorial systems or progress coaches and learning support services. These are just some of the indicators that a school has a strong approach to supporting students who might be struggling.

Quiz current students:

Talk to the current students, they are a good source of information for you. Do take into account that they will have been asked to help at the event for a reason so ask them what they think of the place, what surprised them most, what their top pieces of advice are and what their best moments have been. The open nature of these questions will encourage them to give you a lot of information and not stick to the script of, “It’s a really great place to study, my teachers are all cool and I love my lessons.”

Ask the teacher’s questions:

The way that the current students interact with staff will also give an insight into the school community. Trust your instincts about the general vibe you get while you are at the school/college, this is hard to fake and very important when selecting the right place. Take the time to talk to as many of the subject teachers as you can about their approach to teaching and learning. Most teachers enjoy talking about their subject, what they love about it, why they enjoy teaching it and the way they like to teach. Listening to this information can offer hugely valuable insights that will help you make the right decision for you and your family.

Consider the overall impression of the staff:

Finally, pay attention to the questions that staff ask you. Strong guidance from teachers, high quality information and a genuine interest in the student are important. Initial conversations about what you want to study and why, your aspirations, interests, talents, any worries or concerns you have are vital to a successful time at school or college.

I hope these insights into open day season have been helpful.

Please see below for a useful list of questions for your reference. This list is not exhaustive and is designed to give some examples of questions you might want to ask.

How many students study this subject?

What is the gender mix in the year/class?

What is the student to teacher ratio?

Will I have a personal tutor?

Is there support if I am struggling?

Last year’s results?

What do students go on to do next?

Clubs/Extracurricular activities available?

Is there any assistance with fees and/or supplies?

Typical school day? timetable?

What percentage of students take part in lunchtime activities?

Is there an expectation regarding extra curricular activities?

Which trips run in a typical year?

What food is available on campus? Is it subsidised? What snacks are available to purchase?

Do students have their own lockers?

How far is the nearest bus stop?

What transport options are there?

Guest Author: ANDREA JOYCE – Cambridge education specialist, teacher, educational consultant and mentor.