If all of our children were aspiring witches and wizards like Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, choosing the right independent school would be just a simple matter of booking their place on the Hogwarts Express!
Returning to reality however, the birth of the internet and school marketing directors means that many parents are faced with the daunting task of ‘surfing’ through copious amounts of information on beautifully presented websites in an effort to get to grips with the important details which will enable them to weigh up which school might offer the best educational environment for the individual needs of their own children. Add to this, the views of other local parents and family members or following family traditions, attending countless school open days and reading through piles of prospectuses, choosing the right school for your child is highly likely to be a difficult and perhaps confusing process. Even more so, if you are new to the independent school sector, are moving to a new area, are new to the concept of boarding school or live overseas and are seeking schools with the right kind of supportive provision.
SO WHERE DO I START?
Some parents are primarily concerned about academic standards, many are as concerned about other factors that can make all the difference to their child’s happiness and wellbeing at school: the pastoral care; scope for developing a particular enthusiasm such as rugby, design technology, drama, art, fencing or even polo; the availability of extra tuition if needed for a child who, while brilliant at football, has previously studied little French or is mildly dyslexic.
Not all children have the same needs and abilities. Some flourish best in a more competitive environment. Others do better in a smaller, more homely setting where the emphasis is more on nurturing creative and communication skills than aiming for Oxbridge. There is no one best school that suits all children equally.
With the above in mind, taking the following points into consideration should assist you when putting together your school short-list for further investigation:
• How bright is my child? What are their interests, strengths and do they have any areas of potential weakness? Do I perhaps need to consider an educational assessment to ensure that the school I choose has the resources to both challenge and stretch their capabilities and interests, as well as offer support I f there are any weaker areas?
• Do I feel that I am looking for independent education throughout or might a mixture of state and independent education at different stages be suitable? If so, at what age should I invest in their education, when they are young to give good foundations or when they are older and reach important public examinations?
• What type of school would best suit your child? Co-educational or single-sex, as a day only, flexible, or full boarding pupil?
• If they have siblings, do I wish them to attend the same school or would I consider different schools if their needs and characters differ?
• Large school with breadth of opportunity or small and nurturing?
• What works best in terms of location in relation to your home, school bus routes, options for lift shares with local families, airports and other travel links?
• What is the budget, as annual fees varying enormously from school to school and do you have more than one child to consider? (Fees vary from £4,000 to £15,000 annually for a day preparatory school, up to £18,000 to £30,000 for boarding at a senior school)
• Are there scholarships and bursaries on offer or sibling discounts? How are these assessed or means tested?
• What school culture would you and your child prefer – homely, traditional, prestigious or informal?
• Is the religious affiliation important to you? Do you agree with the ethos and values of the schools you are considering?
• Do I need to consider whether only A levels or the International Baccalaureate and/or Pre U are also offered at sixth form? This may not seem important if at present your child is only age seven or eight, but are you happy to consider a change of school at sixth form, if you leave consideration of this factor until later?
• What kinds of facilities for teaching, sports, IT and accommodation are offered and do these match up with the interests of my child?
• Does the school timetable lessons on Saturdays and consequently am I happy to do the school run 6 days a week?
• When does the programme of sports practices and fixtures take place, after school, lunchtimes, in the afternoons or at the weekends? Does this fit with my availability and work or other family commitments?
Some additional points for parents considering prep school choices
• Into which senior schools does the prep school feed and does the Head have good links with senior schools?
• Do I like the Head and agree with his or her opinions about education and how it should be delivered?
• Does the school have proven annual success in gaining scholarships to senior schools?
• Does the school offer specialist learning support for those who need it?
• If I am considering a boarding senior school, do I want my child to also board at prep school or do I want them at home while they are younger?
• If the senior school I am choosing starts at age 13, does the prep school offer provision up to this age group or does its provision end at age 11?
• Will I have opportunities to meet other parents and are they mainly from London or based locally in the country?
Some additional points for international parents
• If you are an international parent, what is the percentage of pupils from overseas? Around 15% or lower should be ok. A cultural mix is an important part of British education, but no one nationality should be dominant.
• How does the school assist children from overseas to adjust to the UK school culture and the demands of a new curriculum? Do they receive small group or individual support with their English?
• How many boarders are there? If your child is at school at weekends, you will require there to be plenty of other children with whom to interact with a busy schedule of sporting and other activities.
• If you are considering university in the US rather than the UK, does the school support students with these applications?
Using your answers to the questions above, you should now be able to re-assess all of the independent schools on your long-list, to make a short-list of those that you feel meet the needs of your child.
VISITING YOUR SHORT- LISTED SCHOOLS
Having decided on your short-list of schools, you now need to go and see them. Schools are all about people and atmosphere, so a visit is a key part of the decision process. You should visit no more than 4 or 5 schools however, as seeing more can be confusing and is usually un-necessary.
Visiting on an Open Day is a good start point, but remember a school is putting on a show on these days and there is little opportunity to meet personally with key staff to ask your own individual questions. It is far better to call the admissions department and book an individual appointment to visit on a normal school day, so that you can see the school in the way it operates on a day-to-day basis. It is very important to have a list of questions prepared in advance of your visits so that you are able to compare schools on a like for like basis. (You will find some guidance on the types of questions you might like to ask on a school visit in the Education Tips section of the website.)
Remember that you are the customer and it is up to the school to sell itself to you, not the other way around!
Some schools may ask you to register your child before making an individual visit. The registration form can usually be found on the school website and it contains questions which seek some basic information about you and your family. The registration fees are non-refundable and vary between £50 and £200. This is not a means of securing a place for your child, it is no more than an expression of interest and it is quite usual for parents to register their child at more than one school at this stage. It also means that you are unlikely to miss out on any key application dates and deadlines for the school you eventually choose, as by registering the school will keep your details on file and will contact you from time to time to keep you up-to-date with the application process. This is particularly useful when you are thinking several years ahead in terms of choosing a school but is less necessary when you are visiting the school in the year prior to the September of joining.
AFTER THE SCHOOL VISITS
Following your visits to school it is highly likely that you will have a front runner. It may be the school that felt warm and welcoming as soon as you arrived or that you particularly liked the staff you met or the way they were interacting with the pupils during class. Whatever the reason for your ‘feeling’ it is my experience that this usually leads to the correct school choice.
It can sometimes be useful to talk through your thoughts with friends or an education consultant, especially if you are undecided between two schools.
Make sure you contact the schools as soon as possible after your visit to give them your feedback on how it went and to ask any questions that you forgot to ask while you were there. Let your chosen school know as soon as possible that you would like to proceed with a formal application and jst as importantly, once you have confirmed your place at your chosen school by paying the deposit, let the other schools know that you are no longer proceeding.
There are so many things to think about when choosing an independent school, seeking advice from a reputable, experienced educational consultant can be a highly valuable and reassuring tool to support the family in making such an important decision.