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What to look out for at an open day

As we embark on the next open day season, Mike Buchanan, headmaster of Ashford School, Kent, offers some advice on what makes a school stand out.

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The other week, one of my students asked me, ‘What do you do all day?’ She wasn’t being cheeky. She was genuinely interested as she is in most things. Another asked how he could help the staff better understand boys like him, who were struggling with their sexuality. Luca takes the time to talk to me every time we bump into each other asking, ‘How are you, Sir?’ and, ‘Have you done anything exciting today?’ These interactions are the lifeblood of schools across the country and prod me to think about why and how they arise and the pleasures of working with children and teenagers.

These interactions are a natural part of the daily life of the best schools across the world. And they come from something very deliberate – the patient work of adults building extraordinary relationships, which give children the confidence to talk and question, in good times and bad. Visitors consistently comment on the strength and ease of relationships at Ashford. This is what lies at the heart of extraordinary schools; constancy (you might call this unconditional love), consistency, mutual trust, confidence, understanding and support. It’s what you should look for when you visit a school and should be easy to see and feel. Great schools concentrate on just two things to the exclusion of all else – maximising the achievements of the individual and developing character. Step one is to surround the students with inspiring, diverse, capable, positive and engaging role models. This is as important in our support staff as in teachers. Curiosity and a desire to take risks are high on my list, as is a willingness to embrace the values and ethos of the school. This is why I surround the students with a variety of curious people, as each one will engage with the children in a different way. So we have cricketers, journalists, TV presenters, marketing experts, barristers, comics, researchers, engineers, naval architects, senior military officers, nurses, economists, technologists, bankers, musicians, artists, dancers and fresh-faced graduates. You get the picture, people with life experiences and the ability to share their passions, whatever they might be. Many of my teachers have MAs or doctorates as well as their teaching qualification.

Extraordinary teaching is the most important influence on your child’s learning and achievements. Teachers are professionals. We trust them, support them, listen to them, help them and guide them. The head’s job is to develop them as teachers, leaders and people, by letting them teach and removing obstacles in their way. To encourage them to take risks and show them how. To reward them generously and give them the attention and freedom to explore students’ interests. Not through required prescriptive teaching, as therein lies death by boredom for students and teachers alike. To give them time for meaningful conversations with colleagues, parents and pupils and the responsibility and authority to act. To ignore their one-off mistakes and protect them from over-zealous parents.

And then there is the pupil. We seek to surround students with as many varied opportunities as possible. My pupils are presented with thousands of them in and outside of the classroom – hundreds of visits, expeditions, sports competitions, conferences, plays, concerts, exhibitions, talks, lectures and unexamined courses on myriad topics. These are as important as the opportunities they get inside the classroom – they are not extras. Extraordinary schools also balance compulsion with choice. Requiring all students to participate in sport or to play a musical instrument, releases your child from peer pressure, which is particularly acute for teenagers who face two opposing drives – the wish never to stand out and the desire to be an individual. We expect all students to challenge themselves beyond their comfort zone, which is key to developing their resilience and confidence. Standing up to present a piece of personal research to friends and parents may fill a student with dread, but is overcome with patient support and gives them so much confidence in return, as is holding their own on the floor of the Oxford Union.

What makes for an extraordinary school? It’s very simple. Ordinary people with an extraordinary focus on developing your children though strong relationships and endless patience.