What sort of questions should parents ask when visiting a potential independent school?
Once you have drawn up a shortlist of schools that you are happy to consider for your child, it is essential that you make contact with the admissions department in order to arrange to visit.
Visiting the schools you are considering is crucial; as schools are all about people and spending some time there is the only way parents can really assess the atmosphere and ‘feel’ for the school and whether it presents the right learning environment for their child. The school may have changed a great deal since Dad or Mum was there and it is important to assess the schools on what you find now, and the needs of your child, rather than how things were some time ago.
Try not to visit more than three or four schools or it can become confusing. Do however visit more than one school, as it is important to make comparisons, to establish what you are not looking for, as well as what you are.
Always book an individual visit on a normal school day, rather than attending an open day, when the school is on show. It is useful to take along with you a list of questions and to take notes, so that you can make comparisons between schools, after you have toured them all. Without notes, you may find that your memories of each school mingle into one another after you have visited several!
Always ask to meet the Head when booking your appointment, as well as a Housemaster or Housemistress if you are considering boarding at some point in the future. These are key people to the ethos and direction of the school, so you need to be sure that you agree with their opinions on education and pastoral care.
You will find some suggested questions below, which you may find useful to take with you when you visit:
- When was the school’s last inspection? Ask to see a copy of the most recent report.
- How long has the Head been in place and does he/she intend to stay?
- Does the school start at age 11 or 13? If pupils stay at prep to 13 how are they integrated with the pupils who have been there since 11?
- What facilities for sport, I.T. drama, and music does the school have and is there a development in place? If so what are the plans?
- What is the average class size?
- What are the qualifications of the majority of the teachers?
- Does the school offer scholarships or bursaries? If yes and relevant, how are these assessed and how do parents apply?
- What is the academic pace and focus of the school? Do they focus largely on academic achievement or is their approach more holistic?
- Are the pupils grouped by ability? If yes, at what age and are the children assessed in each subject individually or across all subjects?
- What systems are in place to monitor academic performance, what is the assessment policy and how does the school keep parents informed?
- How frequent are parents’ evenings and what format do they take?
- How varied/flexible is the choice of subjects at GCSE. How many subjects are compulsory at GCSE?
- Does the school offer dual award or triple award science at GCSE?
- Is a second modern language or Latin a compulsory/voluntary part of the curriculum at GCSE?
- What is the schools policy on homework/prep?
- Does the school offer A level, IB or PreU in the sixth form?
- Are A level subject choices restricted by option blocks or is there a free choice?
- Does the school offer support to pupils with dyslexia or other special educational needs?
- Can the school provide support for children who do not speak English as their first language and how?
- How does the school stretch gifted children?
- What careers advice are children given and how is this delivered?
- Does the school assist children to plan and secure work experience?
- Can the school assist with applications to university in the US or Europe as well as the UK?
- How many pupils apply to Oxbridge and what is the success rate?
- Are there trips and events to develop and widen their interest and knowledge outside the classroom curriculum?
- Ask to see the school calendar for the current term, as well as the weekly activity programme. Is there a diverse variety of things to choose from?
- Do lots of children have extra lessons in musical instruments? Is there a choir or orchestra?
- Does depth in numbers of sports teams cater for the enthusiastic participant, as well as the ultra-talented?
- Does the school offer Duke of Edinburgh Award?
- Is CCF compulsory and if yes for how long?
- Do sixth form pupils participate in Young Enterprise?
- How is the pastoral welfare of the pupils monitored and how are parents kept informed?
- Is there a House system and are children offered the opportunity to take on responsibility?
- What are the catering arrangements at lunchtime? Is it a self-service system or family style?
- What is the disciplinary policy of the school and how are parents informed of matters relating to their child?
- What happens if my child is ill whilst at school?
- Are activity weeks in the school holidays offered and during what hours?
- Does the school offer daily buses on certain routes to and from school?
- How is the school day timetabled? Does the school have lessons on Saturdays and/or sport in the afternoons? What time does the school day begin and end?
- What is the main parent catchment area?
- Are there opportunities to meet other parents?
- To which, senior schools or universities do leavers tend to go?
- Do many students attain scholarships?
- Is the school strong in particular sports, music, drama or art?
Things to observe while on a tour of the school
- Do the noticeboards suggest an active and happy school?
- How do the children interact with one another, the staff and the Head? Do they look interested when engaged in lessons and happy during their free time?
- Do the pupils appear well-mannered, standing aside for visitors at a doorway, for example?
- No two schools are the same. We are fortunate to have such a great diversity of choice, so all parents can find a school that meets their aspirations. I am certain that once you visit the schools on your shortlist, equipped with these questions, and some of your own, you will be able to make a decision on the school that is the best one to suit the needs of your child.
If you require assistance with this process, please contact us for specialist one-to-one guidance from one of our team of expert consultants.