What is the point of school open evenings?

The edu-utopia where teachers are happy, pupils are helpful and there are free sweets for all is a lie, says Guy Doza

Open days suggest all schools are brimming with grade A students

What is the point of a school open evening? It is obvious to anyone with a functioning brain cell that what you see at a school open evening is in no way representative of the school.

Where else would you see happy children and well-scrubbed floors and toilets? Not to mention teachers desperately trying not to look too tired and overworked, and acting as if they are happy to be there at 8pm on a weekday, when secretly they have lessons the next day for which they haven’t printed their worksheets, because one of the departmental copiers is still down from last term. 

Yes, open evenings are a farcical facade, and I am happy to call them out on it. 

Blatantly artificial smiles

I went to one recently with a friend, whose Year 6 child was looking at prospective schools

A well-spoken, polite student with a blatantly artificial smile came up and asked us if we would be interested in either tea or coffee. I saw behind him a dirty-looking pile of non-recyclable styrofoam cups. “No thank you,” I answered, with an equally artificial smile. 

I couldn’t help thinking of Admiral Ackbar’s famous line from Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi: “It’s a trap!” Let’s be honest here, in what world does a state-funded school offer parents a free coffee, unless it’s some sort of trap to sign your child up to the school, so that they reap the five years of cash that come with the “unit”? 

Many schools (including this one) don’t offer free coffee to their staff members, let alone to parents. As for the styrofoam cups, well, it is clear that they don’t have Greta Thunberg as a pupil

A series of shiny, corporate-looking banners adorned the entrance, with cheesy slogans such as “We Focus on the Individual.” The thing that I find terrifying about that statement is that it functions on the premise that some places don’t focus on the individual. It’s like someone walking around with a button badge proudly stating, “I don’t murder people,” and then expecting praise and recognition for it. 

Like North Korea

As I walked through the various departments, I saw all sorts of interesting attempts to promote the school. The maths department had several exercise books on display, each showcasing beautifully completed equations with neat handwriting and lots and lots and lots of teacher marking. It made me think of the fake cities in North Korea, which serve the sole purpose of fooling outsiders into thinking that North Korea is, contrary to popular belief, a beautiful and bountiful place. 

In the science labs, children were participating in all sorts of fun experiments with things bubbling, brewing and bursting into flames. Mystified primary kids stared longingly at Bunsen burners – yes, this is what science at secondary school is like, children. Enjoy. 

One of the things that struck me across all departments, aside from the members of senior leadership swooping ominously from room to room, was the abundance of sweets. Lollipops and chocolates galore! The primary kids were getting high on sugar, while the parents were placated with free coffee – everyone was catered for. 

As I was taking a tour of the school grounds, I overheard a child say, “Yes, the school seems really nice, but at the other open evening I went to they had much more fun activities with games and things.”

Overhearing this comment got me thinking: do these open evenings actually help the primary school children decide where they want to be? Or do they just set them up for disappointment because, unlike the open evenings, secondary school is not all fun and games?

A 10-year-old’s guide to Progress 8

The next part of the open day was a talk by the headteacher. He started with what everyone wants to hear about: data. He had a slide with the school’s results, compared with the national average. The figures were both on a chart and on a table, which made the numbers suspiciously small: almost as if he didn’t actually want anyone to be able to read them. 

He then confidently said: “But this is no way to measure a school. There is a much better way of looking at a school’s progress.” At which point, he attempted to explain Progress 8 to an audience of incredibly disengaged 10-year-olds and their equally bored parents. 

After sugarcoating Progress 8 to the point where it could kill a diabetic, he moved on to speak about an app that is available to help parents keep track of their children. You can track their homework, their attendance, their results, and even what they had for lunch. It sounded like something straight out of a dystopian novel. 

The assembly finished with the school drama group performing a sort-of-in-tune version of One Day More, a song from the world-famous musical Les Misérables. I found it somewhat ironic that Les Misérables literally translates as “the miserable ones”, and the song One Day More is a rallying cry to join a revolution, which was then brutally crushed by the establishment. Either way, it was a lovely rendition and it seemed to lift the spirits of the audience. 

Setting up for disappointment

I suppose one of the most valuable parts of the open evening is that they allow the primary children to see the school they are going to go to, and this helps overcome any fear or anxiety they might have about the change. However, induction days also exist for this purpose. There are better ways to overcome children’s fear without having to resort to throwing sweets at them. 

It is clear that open evenings aren’t representative of a school. After all, how can you judge a school when there are no children in it apart from those cherry-picked from the gifted and talented club? 

Teachers are tired and overworked, and have other things to do than pretend that their school is better than it actually is. While open evenings may have their merits, on the whole they are nothing more than a slick facade, which set children and parents up for disappointment come September. 

Guy Doza works as a professional speechwriter in Cambridge. Before training as a teacher, he wrote for politicians, scientists, business leaders and CEOs

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