School open days season | Road to 11plus

School Open Days

September. Start of the new school year. With 2 kids, soon to be three, the academic new year has taken on more significance than 1st January. Increasingly In August, we find that work is quieter, European colleagues disappear, hiring stops. This September brings a new project, the campaign to get our eldest into a secondary school and our first school open day. In our case, living close to Central London, we have decided to go Independent. I know, I know, let’s not go into the politics of that decision today – let’s save that for a future post.

Choosing a school

Over the next few months, I will recount our experiences of the school open days and our recommendations when choosing a school. I will not name the actual schools, but I am sure that you will be able to hazard an ‘educated’ guess. Pun wasn’t actually intended!

We will document our journey from school open days through 11 plus entrance exams, hopefully to offer(s) and decision. There are many ways to choose a school and it is a very personal choice.

Concerted Sales & Marketing campaign 

A few years ago we went to several school open days at the seven plus stage and I was struck by the increasing corporate parallels. Slicker and smoother Sales & Marketing efforts. It already started in late September with one Elstree independent school placing unmissable ads in the underground lift and the idyllic pictorial ads in the ubiquitous glossy property brochures dressed up as lifestyle magazines that regularly drop through the door.

Quick turnaround

So the first school open day was last Tuesday week at 5pm, the hottest September day for 100 days. Oh joy! It was my turn to pick up the kids by tube, bring them home, get them out of their Roald Dahl character outfits, that they had worn to celebrate the storyteller’s 100th birthday, quick snack and get them into freshly pressed school uniforms.

I wasn’t looking forward to getting there, despite the school being only 0.7 of a mile away, I had wanted the AC comfort of the car in the stonking heat. That wasn’t going to happen. Traffic was a mare. Waze navigation app was a sea of red and suggesting driving off in the opposite direction.

So it had to be on foot. Armed with water bottles and caps I was prepared for the worst. In the end it was a really nice walk and the boys were surprisingly chipper given they had a busy two days at school and their routine was being interrupted. In the end it was only a twelve minute walk.

Soft and hard sell

Over 20 minutes around 2 hundred parents and children, all looking rather flustered from the heat, poured into a grand hall, reminicisent of a refurbished Oxbridge college with better natural light. There was the loud hubbub of conversation, until the Grand Piano at the front struck up. We looked up, pleasantly surprised, as did a lot of others and within two minutes silence descended on the Great Hall and the headmaster took the lectern.

Slick. Very slick.

The headmaster opened proceedings with a very calm and reassuring manner, explaining the history of the school, its philosophy and core principles. He was quite self deprecating about the school, flashing up funny & sweet exam answers that had completely missed the point. Yes, there were the stats about 90% A levels at A or A* etc, but he wasn’t trying too hard.

At seven plus we went to see a particular school, where the headmistress kept on going on about how they were better than iconic school X, that despite meeting all the other nice engaging teachers, we were totally put off by the principal. If you’re that good, you don’t need to belittle the competition. It is bad enough independent schools being branded as uber-elite in a bad way, any concerns that your darling son may become an arrogant brat were not dispelled.

Little and large show 

Next was the head boy, a sixth former, telling us how he sees he teachers more as friends. Having a coffee together to start the morning and recounting how each spent the prior evening. Very liberal. Obligatory stories followed about trips abroad, music and sports.

He was followed by a year 8 boy, who was not tall enough to be seen behind the wooden lectern. He spoke very eloquently and rather disarmingly about how he was a bit nervous before starting at the school, how welcoming the older pupils and teachers were.


As we have experienced with prep school open days at 7 plus, some parents rave about a particular school whereas other parents have what seems like an irrational aversion to the same school. For example, there is a particular boys’ prep school near us that elicits an almost cult like brand following – ‘ You absolutely have to send DS there if you want to get him into X’ whereas we and some of our good friends wince at the thought of sending our children to what appears to be quite a regimented school. Having not experienced the school first hand, of course, I can’t say for sure.

Like your approach with parenting, you have to go with what you feel comfortable with. Just like Marmite, particular schools have equal numbers of superfans and haters. The goal is to find a few that jive with you and target those well. Of course there is the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) Method, where you spend a small fortune on exam registration fees and send your little darling to assessments everywhere you can. That’s not our cup of tea. Too stressful for us, the little one and frankly we haven’t got the bandwidth.

Surprisingly positive experience 

We were both a bit concerned that our eldest would feel some pressure going to the school open days.  We went in thinking we would be stressed, as our part of London seems particularly competitive (but then whose locale doesn’t). Reality was very different, our eldest was fascinated by all the facilities, “even a modern language block and separate art building.” Being quite obsessed with sports I think I spied his jaw perceptibly drop when he saw the extent of the gym equipment and size of the pool.

My initial feelings of apprehension over the 11plus campaign starting was actually replaced by a feeling of optimism and excitement about the future and all the wonderful different experiences that our sons could be exposed to. Tomorrow, we go to see another school on the outskirts of London, apparently with extensive fields. Interesting to see how number one son reacts.

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