Dan Connolly, registrar, sometime housemaster and assistant head at Lancing College, says that although school success is important, the answer to which one is best for your child can be found a little closer to home
My one great tip for all parents when looking for senior schools is this: don’t look at senior schools at all. By far the most important element in choosing your school is to look, firstly, at your child. What is even more difficult is that you need to do so as dispassionately as possible. I have lost count of the number of times parents have visited talking about their school days as if, somehow, they have any relevance to the choice they are making for their child.
Rugby playing fathers looking for sporty schools for their artistic son, and academic mothers looking for hothouses for their all-rounder daughters; I’ve seen it all.
It’s actually very helpful to write all this down – not just the interests but the character as well. Often it’s very helpful to bring in friends for a slightly less subjective view. You are then ready to look at your options.
My second tip is to watch that Common Entrance bar. Higher barriers do not, and I repeat do not, denote a ‘better’ school. Any school can set the bar high, only accept highly able pupils and churn out good grades, but it takes a great school to take a broad church of young people and really add value to their education.
Watch too, what you are letting your child in for. Perhaps they do scrape past that 65 per cent Common Entrance barrier after intensive efforts at school, extra tutoring and no holidays: congratulations. One word of warning however – they will be in the bottom sets. If your child can handle that, then that’s fine, but please don’t set your child up to feel bad about themselves. Don’t set them up to fail.
Never trust league tables. The best measure of the quality of teaching and learning at a school is the value added data. Did I say don’t trust league tables? Do trust the head teacher of your prep or primary school. They earn their salaries by getting the kids into the right senior schools. Just be gently aware of prep schools that are affiliated to senior schools. It may be completely right that they recommend the ‘home’ team, in fact, that makes sense because the prep school will often echo the values of the senior school. That said, do your own due diligence at the same time.
We’ve all heard the horror stories about schools going broke. Look at the Charities Commission website – they all have to file financial returns, if they are owned by private companies or families, ask in-depth financial questions and don’t go if these aren’t forthcoming. Do not indulge in Mumsnet. Everyone wants you to go to their son’s or daughter’s school to validate their own decision.
Once you’ve done all this and drawn up a hit list you are ready for the tour. Be charming and polite please. There have been a lot of articles in the glossy mags that advocate a slightly bullish approach to school visiting, but pushing into private rooms without knocking is unacceptable. Remember, these schools are (or should be) homes for the children who live in them and they should be treated as such. Also remember that you are being looked at too!
See the accommodation especially if boarding. You must see the housemaster/mistress and it’s always great to see the matron if there is one. Ask the difficult questions: how do you get pupils to settle in? How is bullying dealt with? What is the provision for learning support? Check what they say – if sport is important to your child, ask to go on a Saturday to see how many fixtures are really being played.
All these schools love headline grabbers and their pages will be full of U18 England cricketers and the girl who has just appeared on the front cover of Elle. Just remember, your child may not be a headline type. It’s all very well playing for England, but does the school celebrate the U14Cs? That leads me full circle – look at your child first. Lastly, remember most of these schools will give your child a fantastic academic education. The question is what else is important to you?