With Open Day Season in full swing and some families visiting schools for the first time, I have put together some tips to help parents get the most out of these visits. Although I have written this specifically for families with children entering P3, many of the points could also be useful for families with older children, too.
Why are open days so important at public (non-feepaying schools)?
Unlike private schools and concertadas, which offer tours throughout the year, public schools generally only open their doors to perspective parents once or twice a year. These open days, known as Portes Obertes, will usually take place between the end of January and the end of March. It is generally not possible to visit the school outside of this time, even if you arrive at the school mid-year.
The most important thing for families to realize about open days in public schools, is that any talks or presentations will be held in Catalan. If you do not understand Catalan it is a good idea to take someone with you who does. If this is not possible, you can still get a lot out of an open day. Below you will find some tips to help you do this.
Before the visit
Have a look at the school website. Admittedly, some websites are better than others, but at the least they should provide information about the school´s approach and might give you ideas about what you can expect at the open day.
Ask in the neighbourhood or one of the many Facebook groups dedicated to helping families in Barcelona. Other parents can be a great source of feedback for a school you are interested in. However, the information you are given should be accepted with caution – don´t let one family´s opinion put you off a school (however hard this is). It is much more important to see the school for yourself and form your own opinion.
Public School Open Days – what to expect.
Most open days will include a talk by a senior member of staff. Within this talk they will most likely explain the schools´ educational project, introduce you to members of staff, discuss facilities and sometimes give an indication of how many spots they expect to be available in the school. This is their opportunity to ´sell’ their school to you.
In addition to this, you will usually be offered the chance to tour the school and take a look into the classrooms. Sometimes teachers will be on-hand to ask questions and this might be a chance to clarify some of the things raised in the meeting that were not clear to you.
Often, but not always, the tours take place outside of school hours so, while you will get a chance to see and get a feel for the space, you won´t get to see the school ´in action´. Sometimes these tours are led by a member of the AMPA (parents association), a member of staff or more commonly now, older students from the school. During the tour there may or may not be the chance to ask questions.
Sometimes the schools provide a creche if you intend to bring children, but this is unusual, so check before coming to see if children are welcome.
Within this limited opportunity to get to know a school, how can you make the most of the visit?
Below are some suggestions of things I look out for when visiting a new school.
What does the building look like? Is it light and spacious or small and dark? If the space is limited, how is the available space used to its full advantage?
If the facilities themselves do not appear to be too promising, what is the school appearing to do to address this? Urban garden? Cosy corners? Displaying children´s work? Interesting displays and well-organized resources?
How big are the classrooms? Are there lots of tables filling the space or is there space to move around?
Are there many resources on display and are they easily accessible for the children? Books? Roleplay materials? Art resources? Mark-making materials (pencils, crayons etc.)? Are the resources in good condition and well looked after?
If children´s work is displayed, what is the learning going on? This should give you some indication of the way in which the learning process is viewed at the school. Are there lots of filled-in photocopies or does it appear that children have freedom to create and develop ideas?
What does the outside space look like? If there is a lot of cement, has the school tried to add greenery such as plants or trees? Are there any permanent structures such as climbing frames? Are there toys outside or resources to encourage imaginative play? Have they created an `urban garden´? If possible, try to find out how often they have access to the outdoors.
Where do the children eat and is it cooked on the premises or cooked by outside caterers?
If the Open Day does happen during school hours:
When you visit the classrooms, what is happening? Are children sitting at tables and chairs or is there a lot of movement? Do the children looked engaged in what they are doing? Do they look happy? Can you imagine your child fitting in to this environment? If it´s possible, ask the children questions. You´ll get a good sense of their feelings about the school.
Do the teachers look relaxed and in control or stressed and unhappy? Do you feel that there are enough teaching staff for the number of children?
What is the noise level like and what does this tell you?
Things that you might want to ask, if the situation arises:
What is the school´s policy on adaptation for younger children? Many foreigners are surprised by the abrupt nature of the first few days of school. Will children be expected to come in on the first day and stay the full school day or will there be some flexibility, if it is needed? If you are interested in your child initially only coming in for half-days, ask if this will be possible.
Who will be the teacher for P3 or the year group you are interested in (they may not know this at this point in the year, but still worth asking).
What does a usual day look like? Would it be possible to see a timetable?
How much time is spent outside in the school day?
Do the children go on trips off-site? What kind of excursions do they do?
How often will there be parent / teacher conferences in the year?
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. My suggestion would be that you plan what you want to know about the school beforehand, so you have questions about what you consider important at the forefront of your mind when looking around the school.
Other things to consider:
If you get a chance to see the school when the children are being picked up, look at and talk to the other families. Are there any other international families at the school or people speaking other languages? Can you see your family fitting into this group of parents? If your child does end up attending the school, you will probably have to spend lots of time with them for parties, playdates, school events etc. Are they approachable and open to answer any questions you have? If you can, get some feedback from others who are at the school - if you are living away from you family and friends in your home country, these may become your surrogate family, so get to know them!