The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Gareth D Morewood

Meaningful open evenings: a parent’s perspective

An opportunity to present school life at its most authentic and encourage early co-production is not to be wasted. Gareth D Morewood shares one parent’s summary of their recent open evening.

For some schools, open evenings can feel like a real chore. The prevailing question among staff can be ‘Why are we doing this?’

But if we consider the principles set out in the SEND Code of Practice, it’s clear to see why schools should give prospective young people, parents and carers the opportunity to have initial conversations and get a true feel of the school or setting. This first meeting is often the starting point in a valuable relationship between school and home, and can be used to arrange further meetings or discussions as part of the young person’s transition.

But, as I always say, don’t take my word for it! I asked Liz Murray, an experienced SENCO and a parent of a prospective pupil at our school, to share her perspective on the open evening we held recently.

Different experiences

Liz: ‘As a teacher with 17 years experience in three secondary schools, I have participated in many open evenings, which typically take place in the first half term of the school year. From a teacher’s perspective, an open evening is a useful opportunity to communicate the school’s ethos and values to prospective students and their parents.

‘Each of the three schools I’ve worked at took a wildly different approach to open evenings: from “take us as we are” to a deadly serious military operation that saw senior leaders – equipped with walkie talkies and situated at various points around the building – orchestrating everything carefully and leaving nothing to chance.

‘I have also seen how the community of parents and carers attending the open evening can shape the experience for everyone. I distinctly remember my first open evening, as the head of English at a brand-new academy in the same area as three other ‘outstanding’ schools. I remember being thoroughly grilled by well-informed parents, often forming groups around members of our team to fire questions at us.

'I was very proud of our English curriculum, but even so, it felt like a four-hour job interview!’

Priestnall’s approach

‘This year I have experienced the open evening from the other side of the table, as a parent. My family and I have recently relocated to Heaton Moor in Stockport and I wanted to check out the local secondary, Priestnall School.

For context, this is an oversubscribed comprehensive school with a high percentage of SEND students and an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ rating – not a school that would necessarily need an open evening to attract potential students, so I was interested to see the approach that they would take.

‘As I arrived at the school on foot, and just on time, I was pleased to see the doors open and that I didn’t have to join a queue to get in. I was greeted politely by current students and ushered into a nearly full auditorium for a speech by the school’s headteacher. This set the tone for the evening: it was well delivered, calm, felt genuine and gave us a flavour of school values framed by the motto of “educating for life” – all good so far.

‘We were then given a brief student presentation on anti-bullying – the students were enthusiastic, perhaps a little too enthusiastic for one Year 6 child and her mother sitting beside me, who started to look a little nervous. But this was a valuable addition: current students talking about their experiences and how they support their peers.

This was a valuable addition: current students talking about their experiences and how they support their peers

‘With speeches over, we were taken by a student tour guide to the library and then allowed to roam free, speaking to teachers in whichever subject areas we were interested in. As I had hoped, I learned a great deal about the school systems and the approach to curriculum. Staff were friendly and keen to chat about their subject areas even when I asked a few tricky questions which instantly gave me away as a fellow teacher! Year 6 students were clearly enjoying the many activities put on for their entertainment and it was good to see such a focus on their enjoyment.

What students say

To help give prospective students and their parents a clear picture of what school life is like, we like to collect first impressions from each new cohort of Year 7 students over their first few weeks.

Below are some examples we recorded last month and shared at our recent open evening.

  • ‘The duty staff make sure it is fair at lunchtimes so nobody pushes in.’
  • ‘If you struggle in lessons the TAs are really useful.’
  • ‘I like having lessons in different rooms.’
  • ‘I’m coping better in my classes than I felt I did at Primary.’
  • 'I like the opportunity to do yourself proud!'

‘The school is a sprawling site, so I wasn’t confident finding my way around, but plenty of students were on hand to guide me – the most revealing and enjoyable parts of the evening were the conversations with them.

‘As a teacher, I know what questions to ask about the curriculum. But as a parent, seeing thoroughly marked books wasn’t my main concern. Instead, I was more interested in knowing how happy students were at school. Were they confident? Was everyone included? Could students tell me something about the school that they enjoyed? At Priestnall, this was most definitely the case.

‘What makes a good open evening? Putting together my experience as teacher and parent, I would say that it involves:

  • a welcoming, clean and tidy environment
  • examples of pupils’ creativity and learning on display
  • the opportunity for parents to talk to students and members of staff.

‘At Priestnall, it was a pleasure to start a positive dialogue with students who enjoy learning, and staff who enjoy teaching.’

What is important?

However you organise your open evenings, or even if you opt for an open day instead, your priority should be to offer openness, honesty and good communication for SEND families. This is often the first time families will make contact with the school, so it’s important to make it a positive start.

I’ll finish with the recommendations of the research study I undertook into parental confidence a few years ago, and the key themes for establishing positive communication.

  • Keep parents and carers informed.
  • Make sure they know who to contact and how.
  • Provide honest communication – no long-term benefit in providing anything but the truth.
  • Listen to parents/carers – give them time.
  • Try to avoid uncertainty or misinterpretation.

For more information on Priestnall school’s approach to open evenings, and why they are so valuable to coordinating SEND provision, read Gareth's article for the Optimus Knowledge Centre.

Further reading

Morewood, G. D., & Bond, C. (2012) Understanding Parental confidence in an inclusive high school: a pilot survey.  Support for Learning, Vol. 27 No.2, p53-58 Wiley Blackwell Publishing.

Transition for pupils with autism: what does research tell us?

'On the back foot': a parent's view on choosing the right school for SEND

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