Leona O'Neill: Don your Jessica Fletcher hat when going to high school open night

How to choose the right big school for your little darling is a big question, one that will effect your child and your family profoundly. To get it right, Leona O'Neill recommends taking the Jessica Fletcher approach

What’s the best thing about the school? What’s the worst thing about the school? Do you like getting up in the morning and coming here? Angela Lansbury, aka Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote

IT’S OPEN Night season for all those parents considering the next chapter in their children’s lives. The move to ‘Big School’ is nerve wrecking for parents, never mind the children. Having been down that particular road twice now, I can attest to that.

Primary school is small and comfortable, they have the same teacher all year long who really gets to know your child’s quirks and how they tick. They have a tight group of friends, they know every corner of the school building. They are but babies still, being nurtured in an environment which has pictures of rainbows and cute and hilarious portraits of mums drawn by Primary One Picassos on the walls.

Then they are thrust into a school with hundreds of pupils, a grown-up world of serious subjects, a head-spinning number of classes each day and a sea of different faces in the form of teachers and fellow pupils.

Parents will spend from now until September worrying if they are going to be OK, if they are going to make friends, if they will cope with the work, if the teachers will be nice to them, if the other kids will be nice to them.

Kids will begin eight months of worrying over if they will be able to find their class in the warren of unfamiliar corridors without getting lost and if they’ll have anyone to sit with at lunchtime.

Parents up and down the land will, in the coming weeks, take tours of their local schools with their children. If they are anything like me they will look at their offspring, standing so small in an overwhelmingly large school and wonder where the years have gone since they took their little hands and led them into nursery school.

As they ponder them taking their first steps into adulthood they will remember the day they came home from the hospital, the first time they got to their feet and walked, their first word. Epic milestones will flash before their eyes as they realise their baby is growing up and they will have to let go of their hand.

They will follow their child and other parents around unfamiliar school corridors, speak to dozens of smiling teachers, see the very best the schools have to offer, be dazzled by flashy things and maybe even see a fresh-from-the-butcher's set of sheep’s lungs being blown up by a bicycle pump in the science lab or hear the school band belt out a classic Killer’s tune on trombones in the music department.

They will see these schools at their very best. Schools with more money and resources will put on an amazing show to wow the parents and win over future pupils. But it will merely be a snapshot.

Take it from me, if you want to know what the school is really like, ask the pupils. At every open night I attended with my two boys I cross-questioned every pupil I met like I was seasoned interrogation officer.

Tapping into skills I garnered from the great Jessica Fletcher while watching Murder She Wrote, I would hit them with ‘What is the school really like? Is there a bullying problem? What are the teachers like? How do they deal with bad behaviour and disruptive pupils? Do they give you much homework? What do you want to be when you grow up? What’s the best thing about the school? What’s the worst thing about the school? Do you like getting up in the morning and coming here? Would you tell your friends to come here? Would you be happy if your little brother or sister came here?’

That is precisely where you will get your true information – for these kids, current pupils, will tell you how it is. They are the ones who are living it every day; they are your son or daughter in one year, two years or five years.

A happy pupil reflects a happy school. You’ll know from asking current students if your perspective school is concerned with just good grades or bringing out and nurturing the very best in each and every pupil.

Do your homework and get your Jessica Fletcher hat on. This is a big decision; you want to get it right.

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