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Where's the way in?

Michael Owen finds how first impressions can make a difference.

Last term I visited more than 40 primary and secondary schools in Devon. I learned a lot, not least about how to get in and out of them and what the welcome was like.

It's perhaps too much to expect all schools to have parking spaces for visitors. But some rural primaries have no car park at all - it's the lane or nothing.

Most schools do now have helpful notices directing visitors to reception. It was impossible to find the right way into one primary - a rather forbidding Victorian building. Looking in from the railings on the road, you could see several possible entrances but none had glass that you could look through and get your bearings. So I opted for a door under an arch with "Boys" carved in stone.

I found myself on a concrete landing with stairs going down and up. I chose the up staircase, but as I climbed I had an uneasy feeling I might be mistaken for a malicious intruder. What a relief to reach a floor with some classrooms on it and a friendly face to direct me to the office. No wish to check my credentials here. I left by the same route and never found out if there was another way in.

More often entrances are clearly marked. Bold notices and arrows (or even footprints painted across the playgound) show the way. It's not unusual to see some flower tubs brightening up the approach - or a video camera looking down at you from the wall. Once through the door the receptionist's sliding glass window lets you see a human face - or at least the side of a head transfixed by a computer screen. Ringing the bell seems an intrusion but sometimes it's the only means of getting attention.

Looking around after introducing yourself, you'll probably see "Welcome to............School" on a nearby wall, and stylish logos and snappy slogans like "The school with great expectations". You don't often have to stand around or sit on a plastic chair with rickety legs. You'll probably be able to enjoy a comfortable chair, some carpet, and a few plants or flowers, all making you feel much more at home. Children's best work, photographs and press cuttings are displayed to create a positive image. Schools that have endured an OFSTED inspection make the most of the good bits in their reports, posting up well-chosen phrases.

One rural primary I visited had an old rocking horse outside the head's room. It gave a cheerful signal that schools are about children - though any romantic notions I might have had were spoilt rather when the head said it was the only safe place to put it.

Sitting in a reception area, giving half an eye to the latest newsletter, you can savour the comings and goings to the office. Staff and pupils all tell their own story as they pass - as rich and varied a collection as the Canterbury pilgrims. Lunchtime is best if you want to watch dinner ladies frogmarching criminals to the head's room, or saintly musicians coming to collect their instruments from the safe-keeping of the office.

Once the receptionist can find a moment to sort you out, you probably have to sign in and sport a label, even if you're just going to see the head. But that's a small price to pay for increased security. Let's hope we don't end up with metal detectors and bag checks and that children aren't taught to be so suspicious that they no longer take pleasure in showing visitors to the office.

Schools have learnt that first impressions may make all the difference to parental choice. Let's hope they've also learnt that everyone gets pleasure out of a bright and friendly welcome.

Michael Owen recently retired as principal of Sidmouth College, Devon and is now an education consultant.

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