Trial by guided tour

Showing prospective parents round a school takes up time that could be better spent, argues

The Teacher Training Agency would do well to include another aspect of a headteacher's job in its National Standards for Headteachers. It is one I would call "headteacher as tour guide" and, in the first half term of the academic year, is the part of my job that takes up more time than almost any other.

My local authority requires parents to decide by the beginning of November which infant, junior or primary school they want their child to go to the following September. If they do not return their preference form on time, they run the risk of not getting their child into the school of their choice. There is no guarantee that they will be given a place - even if their form is in by the due date - but after the deadline, many schools will be full and over-subscribed.

All this means that September and October are the peak months for showing prospective customers around the school. I have seen 29 sets of parents in six weeks, making an average of nearly five sets a week, with two more already booked in before the November deadline. Each tour takes a minimum of three-quarters of an hour, so you can work out how much time that takes out of my week. Admittedly, I do sometimes show two or, very rarely, three sets round together. However, since a parent told me that she really appreciated my undivided attention, I am reluctant to risk losing a customer for the sake of conducting another tour.

My school is in an area where there is a great deal of local competition. Many parents do not consider themselves to be proper parents unless they have visited at least three schools. A small number have even visited more than once because they could not make up their minds. The record is held by one family who came three times: mother first, followed by father and then both parents together with child aged three-and-a-half.

The process has its good side. I enjoy meeting new people and showing off the school. Moreover, it is satisfying when everything goes well. The youngest children looking cute and engaged in recognisably educational activities, a class just starting the literacy hour when you can hear a shared text drop and the rest sitting up straight, looking keen and fit to burst if not called upon to answer a question. Even the children we meet in the corridors are looking purposeful and intelligent, and open doors to let us through. The opposite of this, of course, is when every class is clearing up, changing for PE or has decided to test the behaviour policy, and their teacher, to the limit.

Not all heads have to endure trial by tours - many schools are always comfortably oversubscribed. One prospective parent, an ex-member of my staff, received short shrift when she tried to organise a visit to one of these schools. "Are you sure you really want to visit? The headteacher is very busy," was the response from the school secretary. When she persisted, an appointment was arranged with the head, who had to go out when the morning of the visit arrived. The prospective parent was shown round by the secretary.

Would that I could delegate this part of my job! To my deputy perhaps. After all, I can convince myself that it would be good for her professional development. But I would have to take her class, so I would not gain any time and that is what concerns me most.

The TTA states that it expects all heads to provide the leadership and management necessary to secure high-quality teaching and learning and raise standards of achievement. Showing prospective parents round does not contribute to this laudable aim, and takes up time that could be better used.

But the notion of parental preference, once set free, can never be returned to its box.

Janice Bibby is a headteacher in Addlestone, Surrey

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