The Good Schools Guide
The following article on choosing senior schools was written by the Headmaster for the 2007 edition of 'The Good Schools Guide'.
It seems that no sooner have you settled your children into their Prep School than discussions begin as to where you’re going on to afterwards!
There are two exit points from prep school: at the end of year 6 and at the end of year 8, although most prep school heads would argue persuasively that, for most children, there are overwhelming benefits to leaving them in prep school until ‘the end’. Generally, prep schools are less geared up for exit at year 6, so you need to be more organised and pro-active.
For children leaving at the end of year 6, you will need to have their names down at the most selective schools by the end of year 4 (8-year-olds and rising 9s). Entry procedures vary considerably – some use the 11-plus Common Entrance papers while others have their own set of entry papers. The range of scholarships offered at this level also varies. You will need to do your research and then talk your plans through with your prep school head.
For those children staying in the prep system until the end of year 8, year 5 (9-year-olds and rising 10s) is when you need to get your thinking cap on and come up with your shortlist with whom you should formally register your interest. The most selective schools will pre-test 10-year-olds and have lists which close up to three years ahead of entry. The majority of schools operate up to two years ahead. Deposits may be called for around four terms before entry and this will secure a conditional place, dependent on passing the entrance exam.
Preparing children for the traditional 13-plus entry to senior schools is what the majority of prep schools do best and you should find that there is considerable advice and guidance available to you.
Although choosing a senior school is a big decision (not least financially), it is often less fraught than the choice of prep school. By this time children’s ability and potential are easier to assess and their needs are much more evident. Your own circumstances may also be more settled and easier to predict. This time, you should have more access to specialist advice, especially from the prep school itself, and you can also tap other parents and friends who are going through the same process.
The range of criteria upon which people judge the suitability of a school is broad but its suitability for your child(ren) is a personal thing and more an art than a science. In the end, you will undoubtedly end up compromising on one element or another. You will also end up relying on a good helping on intuition – that indeterminable factor that is difficult to define and unique to you!
The key elements that I believe you should look at are:
Type of school - Mixed or single sex? Traditional or progressive? Full boarding, weekly boarding, flexi boarding or day? Prestigious or understated? Large or small?
Location - Do you want a school within a certain radius of home? Are you going to want to watch matches? Does it need to be near Granny or en route to another destination? Would life be easier if all your children were at the same school?
Affordability - Fees vary considerably. How much can you sustainably afford? It would be unfair to start your child along a path that you couldn’t maintain. Are there scholarships or bursaries? How do these work? Are they guaranteed for a certain number of years in advance or reviewable annually?
Staff - What are the staff like? Is there an energy and excitement for their work? Do they look proud to show you their school or are you an interruption to their day? Study the housemasters and housemistresses carefully – could you work with them? Remember, however, that the house staff do change, particularly the young, ambitious ones who are likely to want promotion. Don’t solely rely on the chemistry between you.
Other People - What are the children at the school like? What are their dorms like, their day rooms or their studies? Is there evidence that their matron or housemaster has visited these rooms frequently or are they a tip and the walls covered with pictures that make you blush?! How are the children dressed? Do the children look purposeful and happy? Do they look at you or merely ‘shuffle or scowl’? Are there areas of the School they seem reluctant to show you? Are the qualities espoused by the children at that School ones that you value and your child values?
Facilities - These are not the be-all and the end-all but there are certain basic requirements. In particular, pay attention to the IT, the library and the state of houses. If your child is musical or theatrical, will the facilities play to these strengths? If your child is sporty, does the school offer enough to achieve his or her potential? Beware, however: good facilities need to be matched with good teaching staff. Look at the results not just of the top teams but also of the 3rd and 4th teams. Is there strength in depth?
Extra curriculum - What does the School offer outside the curriculum? Is your child a potential county judo player or fencing professional? Can the school meet these needs or are you going to be driving miles after school or at the weekend? What is the attitude towards sport, the arts, leisure time in general? Are there a variety of interesting and productive activities (music, drams, are, community service, outward bound) to keep your child stimulated and happy during free time?
Ability range - Try to find a school that matches the ability of your child and does the best by its intake. Don’t try for a highly academic school if your child is going to be bouncing along the bottom. Think of the effect of this on your child’s confidence, especially if he has to leave because he can’t cope academically. There is a fine line between being challenging and floundering. Trust your prep school head to advise on this.
Inspection reports - These are a snap shot of the school produced every 5 years or so and they do give you an insight into the major educational issues facing the school and how these are being resolved. But remember that they are out of date as soon as they are printed - a progressive and well-run (and well funded) school should have moved on from the report’s findings fairly swiftly. However, do study the reports, and discuss areas of particular interest should be discussed with the registrar or headteacher. You can usually access these reports from the school’s web site or the I.S.I (Independent Schools Inspectorate)- see Useful names and addresses on page 43.
Other parents - Speaking to parents of past and present pupils is important. Find out as much as you can about the School, the way it operates, its ethos, from the people who have experienced it first hand. Beware of relying too much on any one source; there may be issues you are unaware of with the relationship between the parent and the school.
Other professionals - Listen to the advice of the head and the staff at your prep school. Good heads will know both the senior schools and their own pupils well. Your head will be able to see (objectively and without any bias) which school will suit your child and know what the academic thresholds are. There is no point putting effort and raising your child’s expectations if there is very little chance that he or she will achieve the entry criteria. A good head will know the admissions staff at the senior school, the character of the boarding houses, any important developments at the school, and will be honest about the chances of your child receiving an award (scholarship or exhibition). Ask about the process each school has in its selection, for example, when are the entrance examinations are, or whether there are any pre-tests?
Your own impressions and intuitions - Don’t necessarily wait for open days to visit a school. Ring up and get someone to show you round. People and place watch! Don’t underestimate the importance of the ‘feel’ of the school for you. A family excited by the prospect of senior school is a motivated and bonded one. Sending a child to a school he or she really wants to go to is an ideal to be achieved.
Be prepared to compromise - you will be unlikely to get a perfect fit…but aim to get pretty close!!
Article © 2007 Galore Park and Lucas Publications, Ltd. Reproduced by kind permission.