Column – School Matters with Dennis Richards OBE

Most head teachers will say that their school is not just an exam factory, and then proceed to go through exam statistics in stultifying detail. And you can guarantee that they will be excellent.

Most head teachers will say that their school is not just an exam factory, and then proceed to go through exam statistics in stultifying detail. And you can guarantee that they will be excellent.

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It was Mrs Thatcher who changed education forever. From the 1980s onwards we were told schools would become like businesses and compete with each other.

For better or for worse. Forty years on that’s a pretty much a fair conclusion.

Parents of 10 year olds are already on the treadmill towards choosing a school for 2017. Read the prospectus, then the open evening, followed up by an open day.

The school brochure used to be a few sheets of A4 run off on the school’s ancient “Banda” photocopier with term dates, details about the school day, and the school uniform list. I was introduced to the concept of business sponsorship while working in the Midlands as a deputy head. A whole new world opened up.

Businesses would offer us tempting sums of money for “product placement”.

At first we were a bit naïve. Melton Mowbray is the home of the pork pie.

It seemed a cracking idea when a leading manufacturer offered to sponsor our prospectus. A prospectus and porkies was probably not a good association.

The glossy brochures produced by today’s schools are on a par with those produced by the best hotels, supermarkets and other retailers.

Photoshop allows us to remove our ugliest buildings and our naughtiest pupils. The head teacher gets younger every year.

It is the time of year when thousands of parents around the country are traipsing around the local secondary schools to identify the perfect establishment for their cherished offspring. By the end of October they will be suffering from jet lag.

They have learned so much about homework, discipline policies, curriculum and pastoral care. Some parents have an unfair advantage. With two children already in the system they are on their third tour.

They are only there “to be fair to all our children”.

In other words they’ve heard the speech before. “You said that last year” (i.e. boring.) “You didn’t say that last year” (i.e. liar). You are also aware that when you picked the date 12 months ago you had no idea that the football authorities would pick your open evening date for England’s most crucial qualifying match in years.

There is a suspiciously marked gender imbalance in your audience and a kind of brooding “we’d rather be anywhere but here” atmosphere in the room.

Since, on such occasions I would be feeling much the same, I would be half-tempted to stand up and recite a nursery rhyme and wind up after three minutes.

Even that proved tricky. “Grand Old Duke of York” (ageist). “Mary had a little lamb” (sexist). “Old Mother Hubbard”(ageist and sexist”).

As for the sheep which was asked if it had any wool, don’t even go there.

It’s all so stressful. Most schools will include a bit of soothing music. Anything to provide a bit of variety.

Although I do think that the head who arranged a fashion show with models form the sixth form (both genders of course) was going a bit too far.

As was the head, who sent two visiting prospective 10 year olds out of the room for “not paying attention”.

Above all, avoid anything controversial.

You are like Basil Fawlty trying to avoid talking about the war. You know the kind of thing. “I mentioned grammar schools, but I think I got away with it”.

Most head teachers will say that their school is not just an exam factory, and then proceed to go through exam statistics in stultifying detail. And you can guarantee that they will be excellent.

That is a given.

Open day at the school. You cannot decide whether you are hoping for rain or sun.

The former might mean that the school open day will give parents something to do to get the kids out of the house; on the other hand the school looks at its best when it’s sunny.

Classrooms which you would rather not show should have meaningful notices on the door, “Quiet please. Oxbridge practice exam,” or “Recording in progress”. Make sure that the pupils you have “randomly selected” to act as tour guides know what they are supposed to say.

They are loving the school and making good use of the school’s excellent facilities. Parents love computers. Put them in rooms with two doors. You can then take parents into the same room twice.

Nothing of course can disguise that school transition is a desperately serious and worrying business for all parents.

Schools can be dangerous places, especially now when so many teenagers are suffering from low self-esteem.

Look for a school which will keep your child safe, and encourage him or her to be healthy.

Where every child matters. Where enjoyment of life is the norm.

We are only young once.