"A rounded education, outstanding co-curricular opportunities, excellent pastoral care, 400 years of tradition, a top academic school”. If you’re looking for a senior school for your child, the chances are you’ll have read many such descriptions while perusing websites and scanning prospectuses. Contemplating the move from prep or primary school, you may be faced with a bewildering array of marketing information, along with playground and car park gossip. How can you maximise your chances of finding the best fit for your child? Obviously you should take advice from your child’s current head, visit the schools that interest you and attend their open days. But there are other, potentially more fundamental, things to consider.
What qualifications does the school offer?
You might assume that all schools offer the same curriculum and the same path to higher education. This is no longer true. Independent schools are able to develop their own curricula, seeking and creating qualifications which reflect global changes in universities and the workplace. Schools may adopt well-known programmes such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, Pre-U, EPQ or IGCSE, or they might develop their own courses and qualifications which they believe serve students better.
At the relevant schools you can now study for the Bedales Assessed Courses, Sevenoaks School Certificate or the Malvern Literature Certificate: UCAS-recognised qualifications usually taken in Year 11. Such qualifications are usually devised in accordance with the school’s principles and vision, and in recognition of the type of education a 21st-century student requires.
How will the school prepare my child for the workplace?
In 2025, when the Year Seven pupils of 2015 will start to finish university, the working environment will be global, digital, enterprising and resourceful with a number of as yet unknown new professions. Students therefore need to be adaptable, enquiring and resilient. This is what a good school can deliver. Forward-thinking schools recognise the importance of a lifetime view of education, not just a plan for the next seven years. Inevitably a school should develop digital expertise.
Tomorrow’s workforce should also gain a good comprehension of social responsibility, transferable skills and the ability to think laterally, critically and creatively. In addition, students should be prepared by receiving a global education. This is not just about a cosmopolitan student body, but delivering a truly international and diverse experience which includes immersion in other cultures and languages through the academic curriculum, trips co-curriculum and community service activities, so that students become comfortable and adept in a global environment.
The educational environment
Single sex or co-educational? Traditional or liberal? In addition to such broad distinctions, consider how the learning environment nurtures students. How does a school develop teamwork, emotional intelligence and social skills? Independent schools are by nature exclusive places, largely socially determined by intelligence and the ability to pay fees.
Many, however, embrace service to others as a core component of the education they offer. The International Baccalaureate Diploma, for example, requires that students develop a positive attitude to service with a programme of service activities.
Ethos and culture
The daily life and character of a school shapes its students, and as parents we have instincts and ideas about the educational culture we would like for our children. You can read about a school's ethos online, but how can you get under the skin of a place to understand its structure, traditions (or lack of them) and nuances?
When you visit, you might observe how students and teachers address one another, or ask about whole-school activities, publications and celebrations. What do students wear? How many student-led clubs are there? What adorns the walls: schoolwork; team photos of the 1920s; valuable paintings? What is described, by students, staff and marketing materials, as being at the heart of the school?
The lives of alumni may illustrate institutional character. Professional success can be measured in many ways and while a school may be known for a particular discipline, a good education should also encourage a student body to move on to a variety of careers, from the arts to public service and sport.
Remember that the first step should involve your child’s teachers, who will be aware of the strengths of a number of schools and can make recommendations. It is in everyone’s interests that your child goes on to a school where they will be happy and successful.
Attend open days. These are “show events”, where the campus has been especially tidied up, but you will nevertheless get a flavour of the place. A visit to your favourite schools during term time is a crucial next step. Do some research before you arrive to find out whether your child’s needs and interests are catered for.
Expect to meet students – if a school trusts their pupils, they will be happy for them to tour you around the campus. Don’t expect to be able to walk into lessons. Schools with a large number of visitors each week will try their best to avoid disruption for students, something you will appreciate later on.
While you are meeting the head or director or admissions, ask yourself if they seem genuinely interested in your child. Your relationship with the admissions department is important because they will be helping you on the journey through the application process.
Finally, make sure you don’t leave the school without information about applying and, crucially, the deadlines.