Parents’ guide to surviving the school marketplace

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by Antony Spencer, Principal of St Lawrence College
parents’

Whenever the time comes to trade in the family car, my whole tribe embarks on the collective project. I start reading car magazines in the barber’s shop, scroll through endless car websites, and my wife – who has only a passing awareness of Jeremy Clarkson – starts taking a geeky interest in mpg and 0 to 60 figures. The children compliantly troop around different garages with us for test drives, allowing themselves to be squashed into different seating combinations whilst passing judgement on whether the car infotainment system is acceptable. Overall it’s a pretty exhausting experience but sensible, given the financial outlay and the length of family journeys.

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Contrast the way some parents approach choosing the right school for their child.

I offer to see the parents of every new pupil coming to my school and I observe two broad approaches to choosing a school. There are the parents who are like me buying a car: they arrive having done plenty of internet research, quoting league table positions and inspection reports, and often have lists of questions prepared for our meeting. It can even be a little embarrassing when I’m told of something I’ve written or said that I don’t recall.

At the other end of the spectrum are parents who rely upon a gut instinct from their school visit. They are interested in seeing the interaction between different pupils, between staff and pupils and the overall feel of the school. I always hope for good weather when this type of parent visits! Sometimes it is an inter-generational gut feeling: parents choosing the school because they went there. Why assume that, just because we enjoyed being at a school, it’s right for our children? We don’t do this with cars (the reason I’m not driving a Hillman Hunter), and if we’re honest it could just be vicarious nostalgia. Schools can change a lot in one generation.

Both approaches need to learn from each other. It is absolutely vital you and your child visit a school. Schools have improved their marketing considerably in recent years with sophisticated websites and active adoption of social media, but the reality may not suit you and your child. Using the car analogy, the Citroën I decided was a perfect first car due to a magazine review was immediately discounted when I sat in the driver’s seat and found my head wedged up against the sunroof.

When you visit a school, you will ideally be given a tour by pupils; check they aren’t hand-picked and well-drilled (it’s easy to spot). Most pupils feel proud of their school, and are naturally effusive, but will usually freely give the unvarnished truth, so ask them questions that aren’t answered anywhere else. Are pupils happy? Are they all treated equally? What’s the food like? Are the teachers good? Try above all to get a sense of the overall ethos of the school, that intangible aspect that makes the choice of school an essentially personal one.

Although we can overstate the impact of heads, they are important in establishing a school culture, so that meeting is important, but bear in mind heads tend to be quite charming or we wouldn’t be doing the jobs we do! Try to meet other staff to work out how deep the ethos is. Importantly, ensure you visit at least one boarding house and discuss how your child will be allocated to a house. Will your child have a choice of houses? Will they be able to have a night in the house as a ‘taster’? Do the cleaning and catering staff seem to be happy working there? They will play a vital role in your child’s care too.

Research also has a key part to play. League tables are now virtually meaningless, and in the past mostly told you how selective the school was on entry rather than how good the teaching was. But you can look for the universities that pupils are going to – is there a good range, showing that the school can provide aspiration to all pupils? Mumsnet is anecdotal, with comments ranging from hearsay to the very insightful. Almost all independent schools are charities, so their accounts are online; these can be a useful way of checking on the level of scholarships and bursaries a school provides. If you are totally bemused, there are educational agents who can advise; some of these are excellent and genuinely know a wide range of schools.

You may make the whole exercise easier by narrowing down based on location, single-sex versus co-ed, A level versus IB, larger school versus smaller, rural or urban, highly academic versus broader education. But don’t be too proscriptive. Go to see heads from a single-sex and a co-ed school and quiz them on their views, rather than relying upon competing data. Headline fees are similar in the independent sector, but the levels of scholarships and bursaries do vary, so don’t rule out the apparently more expensive options.

One final but fundamental point. Parents often carry enough guilt without loading on the fear of royally messing up their child’s life by choosing the wrong school. School standards differ and parents can make poor choices, but as a group, boarding schools have remarkably high standards of pastoral care and academic pursuit, with educational opportunities that most people in this world can only dream of. More important than the parent’s choice of school is therefore the willingness of the child to make best use of all the opportunities given to them. To paraphrase JFK, you shouldn’t just be asking the school what they will do for your child, but asking whether your child is ready and willing to be an active part of the whole school community.

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