Why choose an independent school? Part 1: Choosing the right school

Independent School Parent brings you highlights from speakers at its seminar at The Sunday Times Festival of Education on 'Why choose an independent school'. Here Tor Down outlines questions that every parent should ask when choosing a school.

As a parent, you know your child best and you will instinctively make decisions that are – largely – the best ones for them. In the quest to choose the right school for your child, you will of course be well equipped as a caring and informed parent, to make the best decision.  But we at Independent School Parent do have a range of tools to help you cut to the chase when shortlisting and selecting the ideal schools, and I would like, as a parent of four children in education, to share some of these tools.

Firstly, there are questions that you might like to research before visiting any schools, to prepare a shortlist of possible schools for your child. Then there are the questions to ask of schools when visiting them and meeting the head and key members of staff.

Word of mouth is probably as important as research on the internet and examining magazines and guides to schools. However, I do suggest that you remember that things can change – for the better or worse – in schools quite quickly, so what you hear one term about a school could have become obsolete by the next academic year. It is also important to remember that what is a huge plus about a school for one parent may not be important for you. But armed with a set of questions based on those I’m setting out here, you can create a truer and wider picture than one or two parents can ever paint.

What to consider

When shortlisting a range of schools to visit, I suggest you think of not just the academic level, or whether you and your child want boarding or day, co-ed or single sex. The other key issues include:

  1. Location – is it in the country or in a town, and if in the country, is it important for you and your child for the school to be near a village or town?   Also, perhaps more important, is the school near enough for you to visit (if you live in the UK) or near a railway station or airport?
  2. The type of public exams taken at the school – for example the International Baccalaureate is not suitable for all pupils as it requires a good level of ability at a range of core subjects. Some schools offer Pre-U, which can help children aiming high for university. Or, in the case of prep schools, is it important for you and your child that the school should have a track record of helping get pupils into a particular school that you have your eye on for the secondary stage?
  3. The plans for the school over the next 5 years or so – is it about to build an extra set of classrooms and double the number of pupils?

Questions to ask when you visit schools

Once you have made a shortlist of schools, it will be worthwhile to visit your selected schools. I suggest you visit no more than 6 in total. It is important to make sure to ask questions when you visit the schools, some may seem blindingly obvious but there are those you may not have thought of that, believe me, become more relevant and pressing once your child is at the school:

If we take the academic aspect initially, you may like to ask the head or staff of the schools you are visiting the following:

  1. In the case of a prep school, how long do you recommend a pupil spends on their prep each evening and is the prep done at school or at home? 
    You may find a school that offers the facility of a child doing prep at school before coming home is preferable to a school where everything finishes at 4pm and your child is then expected to do 2 hours prep in the evening.
  2. How are the examining boards chosen for public exams by the school – is it past success rates, how wide the syllabus is or even how early the exams can be sat?   
    One Board this year offered sitting A level English in January, which was marvellous for getting the exam out of the way, but only allowed about four months of English tuition (September-January) instead of the full maximum of about seven months.
  3. What academic scholarships are offered at the school and how many?   
    Some schools offer marvellous extra programmes for academic scholars, which can provide a range of activities to extend and stimulate them.
  4. What are the qualifications needed for a child to move up to the sixth form after GCSEs? 
    Some schools require rather high grades at GCSE for the pupil to move into sixth form, and this may not be possible for all, which would mean a move to another school.

Questions to ask the teachers

Moving to the pastoral side of school life, make sure to consider the following questions which you may like to ask heads or staff at the schools you are visiting which may affect the care and wellbeing of your child to a greater or lesser extent:

  1. It is interesting to find out whether the head knows the names of all his or her pupils, or just those that stand out for being particularly good at something – or naughty!   
    One Year 9 pupil I know recently exclaimed that she had no idea how her headmaster seemed to know everything about her, not just her name, but several of the (generally very positive) things she had been up to, every time he passed her!  
  2. It is worth asking what the school policies are towards bullying/drugs/smoking/drink/sex; and how these policies are enforced.
    You may not worry that a blind eye is turned to smoking behind the bike sheds, or you may feel that expulsion for such a misdemeanour is the required outcome – but it is good to know whether you share the same overall views of the school before you chose it.
  3. Exeats, for any boarding school, whether prep or secondary, are always important to look
    If you want a school that allows pupils out every weekend, make sure your shortlisted schools offer that. Some parents in Kent sent their child to an excellent school in the North of England; it was only when he had started there that they discovered that the school only allows ONE exeat per school year! If you have children at more than one school, it can be advisable to check whether their exeats are the same each term, otherwise the children will not see each other all term apart from (possibly) half term!
  4. Especially in boarding schools, the life of the pupil common rooms is key to the culture of their house and how they mix with children of their own age and
    Some school houses provide separate common rooms for each year group, some only for the older ones and others provide one common room for all year groups within a house.   Depending on the sociability of your child, they may enjoy the mixed year ‘banter’, or may prefer to keep to those of their own age.
  5. If a school offers boarding and day options, it may be important to ask what the school does to integrate the
    Mealtimes taken together, prep done by day pupils at school, mixed boarding and day houses are just some ways that schools can help integrate the two sectors.    
  6. If your child is not likely to make the A, B or C team for their sports, and in a large school, they may not make the D, E or F team either, what provision is there for them to be able to play matches, whether in the major sports or perhaps in an alternative sport that they might
    Boys are enjoying ballet in many schools now, and girls shooting, but not every school has the provision for this.
  7. When visiting boarding schools which allow pupils to go home at weekends, you may feel it is relevant to find out the proportion of pupils that stay in over weekends, should you not want your child to come home but to stay in and make the most of what the school offers at the weekend.
  8. It is of course increasingly difficult for parents as well as teachers to police the use of mobile phones, computers, and other digital equipment. What may be revealing about a school is to find out its policy in this regard. 
    In some boarding schools, houses take mobile phones from the younger children overnight, to prevent them using them at night or when they should be doing prep.

The final important questions

Finally, questions you should think of asking when you visit your shortlisted schools could include those of a cultural nature.

  1. The learning of musical instruments in some schools – mostly prep schools – can be an important part of the cultural life of the
    If you feel this is important, you may want to check not just how good the music department is, but how many children play one or two instruments, and how many different choirs and orchestras there are.
  2. Most schools offer a good range of clubs and societies; what is not obvious sometimes is how popular these activities really are for the
    It is always worth asking a pupil who shows you around the school how many and which clubs they belong to.   As with university life later on, in some schools it is ‘cool’ to belong to clubs and societies, and the pupils can be very proud of them; in other schools, the clubs can be there almost in name only. I recently attended a party where the live jazz band were from a public school in my county, and the pupils from the school who were attending the party – as well as the members of that band – were deeply proud of that band.
  3. Children from overseas are welcomed in almost every independent school in the
    It is useful to know both what is the proportion of overseas pupils in any school you might visit, and what the school offers in terms of encouraging integration for those children.
  4. Finally, it can be interesting to find out how long heads and housemistresses and housemasters stay in their
    You may select a school based on the excellence of one key person, who then has to move on just a year after your child has started there. This is never going to be an exact science, but it is worth looking at.

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