Belfast Telegraph

Open Days give parents transfer test of their own

The wait for transfer test results is finally over. But for Ian Sansom Open Days hold their own terror

And so, once again, on the tour of the post-primary schools, Transfer Procedure 2012 Guide For Parents firmly in one hand, hopes and dreams in the other.

Together, like all the parents of the North Eastern, and the South Eastern, and the Southern, the Western, and the Belfast Education and Library Boards, we are on the search for the holy grail: the perfect school.

But which will it be? Boys' High? Girls' Grammar? Irish-medium, all-ability, co-educational, non-denominational?

According to the prospectus, 'the importance of truth, freedom, honesty, generosity, self-discipline and respect for others permeates the atmosphere' of this school.

Another seeks to provide 'a nurturing environment based on positive relationships and mutual respect which supports, guides and inspires our pupils in their pursuit of success and happiness.' Yet another seeks to 'build on each child's self esteem and exploit their talents'.

This lot wear black. That lot wear green. They have a new canteen. Nothing here has been modernised. Everything here is brand new.

On paper, they all sound great. On paper, they all sound the same. It's like with Paris, God, and internet dating: you've really got to see them for yourself.

The first thing you notice at the Open Day are the other parents. Are they a little bit like me? No. "Thank goodness," says my wife.

And then the pupils on the door, handing out the prospectuses. Proud, heads up? Embarrassed, heads down.

And then the hall. Standing-room only. Could do with a lick of paint. And that horrible, familiar, unexpungeable smell: crowds, dust, hormones, heat. The excitement of participation.

Cue the choir. Cue the penny-whistle orchestra. Cue the drama group - off to Edinburgh later this year - with an hilarious sketch. And then up pops the principal with the inevitable powerpoint presentation.

And principals, principals, please, can I make a plea? When addressing a large crowd of prospective parents, it's a good idea to start with a simple hello and a welcome and a thank you for coming and a "My name is X, and I'm the principal".

Otherwise, what are we meant to do, guess who you are? Because some of you, frankly - we'll not say who - might be mistaken for the warm-up act.

And then, of course, there's the tour, and your personal tour guides, volunteers from Years 8-11, with some sixth-formers thrown in for good measure and a little touch of gravitas: the two friends who snigger at every question; the boy who loves the chess club; the boy who disappears; the girl who plays trombone; the girl with spray-on tan.

And into the classrooms, where some teachers shake your hand, and some huddle in the corner, some look you in the eye, and some shuffle right away.

Of course, you mustn't judge a teacher on the strength of their handshake alone, or their welcoming smile, but of course you do. I have to remind myself that teachers don't become teachers because they really wanted to go into sales.

My best teacher at school was a 22-stone behemoth with a long straggly beard who stank of drink and dreams unfulfilled, and who never looked you in the eye. She was an inspiration.

And onwards, onwards to Home Economics, first port of call if you want first pick of the traybakes. "I hope you washed your hands?" I say. "Dad!" And then Technology: not like my day, all GoogleSketch and CAD. English: never changes. History: ditto. Geography, which doubles up on Wednesdays for Learning for Life and Work.

French: "Bonjour, madame!" "No, Dad, don't!" German: "Guten Abend . . ." and dragged straight out the door. Science: whizz-bang, good; pigs' lungs, bad. Art is always full of girls, listening to Adele. Music: brass bands in the boys' schools; quartets in the girls'.

In PE all the teams play each other in the purpose-built new hall. We are busy making mental notes, at a brisk mid-pace stroll.

Some parents are making actual notes, deep in conversation with the pupils and the teachers.

What are they asking? What do they know? I overhear one woman say, "What about Chinese?" And one man mutter quietly, "What's the point of Shakespeare, in this day and age?"

My wife says to me: "What do you think?" I say: "It feels forsaken and forlorn.

"And I don't think much of the uniform. And the head looks like Gene Wilder."

"But apart from that?" "It looks absolutely perfect."

On the way home, our opinions swing like pendulums. You like this, I like that, and alas the truth is I don't know how to pick a school any more than I know how to pick the winning lottery numbers.

Schools with modern campuses can be schools stuck in the past. They may be high in purpose: their achievements may be low. They might be down, but going up.

And I try and explain that this is the first lesson of Big School: there's no longer a right answer; the way is no longer clear.

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