Open evenings: No place like ordinary school life

Open evenings are creating a 'Wizard of Oz' effect, making schools out to be something that they are not, explains one head of English

Rebecca Lee

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In Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wizard of Oz appears to Dorothy as a giant head on a big throne of green marble that sparkles with gems. He appears to her companions – the scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Lion – as a lovely lady, a terrible beast and a ball of fire. Imagine their surprise, then, when they return from destroying the Wicked Witch and Toto knocks over the screen to reveal a little old man, a humbug. The Wizard’s defence? He had been "making believe". 

The surprise and dismay of Dorothy and her friends at this discovery might well be mirrored by Year 7s across the country, who have discovered that their lessons don’t quite live up to the awe and wonder they were sold on open evening the year before. 

Their maths teacher probably isn’t dressed as a magician, there are no dead fictional characters on the floor of their English classroom and there are far fewer explosions in science lessons than they had expected. Why? Because open evenings have become ever more about making believe and less about revealing what a school is really about: the nuts and bolts of everyday teaching and learning. 

Open day attractions

Instead of planning for their lessons or marking a set of books or, dare I say it, catching their breath, teachers around the country are engaging in myriad activities to attract potential students. 

The demands upon them range from putting up beautiful displays in record time to sourcing fancy dress to creating historical poo! Whatever it takes to make their subject seem exciting, because what they actually do day in, day out just doesn’t cut the mustard for open evening. 

On the day itself, some teachers are doing a 14-hour day and then being expected to teach five lessons the following day – though, it’s fair to say, with significantly less pizzazz. 

Not only do I think that this is a misuse of teachers’ time, but I also think it’s dishonest. While the parents understand the rules of play – they know this isn’t what day-to-day lessons look like – I’m not convinced that 10-year-olds don’t think this is real flavour of what to expect. 

I know that open evenings are important. I know that this is especially true for those schools that do not have the luxury of being oversubscribed. I know that teachers work hard on open evenings because they’re proud of their school and they want their school to succeed. 

But I also know that this smoke-and-mirrors approach to attracting new students isn’t fair. It isn’t fair to expect our teachers to add to their workload with frippery. And it isn’t fair to prospective students to sell them something so far removed from what their experience will be. 

Let students decide

Let’s kick over the screen and show prospective students and their parents what we’re really about. Let’s stop putting on a one-off show and, instead, open our doors during the day so that Year 6 students and their parents can see what our school really looks and feels like.

Let them decide whether we’re the right fit for them by what they can see on an ordinary day. Let them watch part of an ordinary lesson which may, it’s true, have fewer flames, poo and snakes than some open evenings but which, probably, is still pretty interesting and much more true to what most days will really be like. If prospective parents can’t make it in during the day then let’s just agree to show them something true and honest. Let’s cut the gloss and the fire and the excrement.  

The not-so-great nor terrible Oz had no clue how to get Dorothy back to Kansas. "How can I help being a humbug," he said, "when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?"

Rebecca Foster is head of English at St Edmund's Girls' School in Salisbury. She tweets @TLPMsF

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