Choosing Your UK Senior School
Peter Tait's guide to the most important questions parents should be asking when choosing a UK senior school...
Financial Cost of UK Education
With the price of a five-year education at most leading independent schools already in excess of ₤100,000 and with no guarantees accompanying the investment, there are a lot of factors for parents to consider when planning a route through secondary school for their children. The first question for many, of course, is whether to pursue to go the route of fee-paying schools at all or whether a good state education, whether grammar or comprehensive is available locally. Whatever the answer, the next question parents ask, and the one that underpins any decision, is what is the best school, both present and future, for the needs of my child,? What does each school offer? What does it deliver? And how well does it prepare young people for life?
When parents try to identify what senior school to choose, financial cost is, of course, an important determinant (and can vary significantly from school to school – and higher fees do not mean better schools!), but it may be other factors that mitigate against the traditional route you have sketched in to your child’s life chart and that, on examination, the benefits you assume will accrue may do so, but often only to a lesser or greater degree. What is important in making a decision of this magnitude is to be able to stand back and ask the really tough questions, the important questions, of the schools and of ourselves, so as to ensure that we really do end up with what is best for our children, not for reasons of blind compliance or tradition or social conscience or, heaven help us, by doing exactly what the children want (often the very worst reason of all).
What should you ask when visiting a UK School
Leading questions posed by curious parents at an early stage of enquiry may include which schools guarantee success (none), which are placed higher on the league tables (in itself, largely irrelevant) or which have the best ‘value-added’ record (too few have data available). More pertinently, the central question as to which school best suits the academic and social needs of their child and is going to nurture their specific strengths and character needs a lot of research and thought to arrive at a decision than can be at best well-informed, if never truly definitive.
Of course, there are no simple answers. It is important, however, that parents are as well-advised and as well-informed as they can be (which is an important part of any primary or prep head) and that they know the right questions to ask before entering into a commitment that is worth as much as a new car and world trip each year or that long-hoped for escape in France or Spain, with or without yacht! Hence, in response to many years of answering such enquiries and numerous meetings and discussion with anxious parents, I have gathered up some thoughts or observations on the matter that may be worth considering in making your decisions.
When considering schools from an academic vantage, it is sensible to ignore the league tables; focus, instead, on how the most able and least able students performed. Some schools have a less selective entry requirement that means that there is a broader mix of abilities, no bad thing in a world that is too keen to skim off the supposed cream and discard the rest. Some senior schools can become rather precious about only being able to teach streamed classes of high ability pupils – one Chairman of HMC even advocated ‘super teachers’ to teach the very bright, something that is quite Dickensian in its advocacy, harking back to the out-dated idea of teachers as being fonts of all knowledge rather than facilitators (education, after all, means to ‘lead out’ rather than to “force in”). It goes without saying that good schools and any teachers worth their salt should be able to bring out the best in pupils across a range of abilities.
Remember also that recent research on A level results has shown that, as a rule, pupils with 3 A grades from independent schools are being outperformed by the time they are third year university by pupils from comprehensive with three Bs (who can blame universities for discriminating in favour of potential!) This is probably the result of excellent teaching at independent schools that has propelled students ahead, but it needs to be sustainable. You need, therefore, to ask whether the results a senior school boasts of are built on good foundations (independent learning skills and a mature, well-informed approach to, and desire for the benefits of, on-going education) or whether pupils have been assisted to peaks that they cannot maintain, either through a lack of independent skills or intellectual hunger. It is fundamentally dishonest for schools to take pupils past their intellectual comfort zone without providing them with the tools and skills to survive and maintain the same standard when all the props and support of their often over-vigilant, highly accountable and extremely supportive teachers are removed.
Ask your prospective senior school what they provide to protect the grades their pupils get, whether they provide / teach the sort of skills – both learning and life – that will enable the pupil to build on what they have achieved at school. To most accurately do this, ask them the drop-out rate or whether they have a policy of exclusion after GCSE based on grades, not effort. And ask about the success rate of their alumni at university – any public school worth its salt tracks its leavers and should be able to give you this information – it could be very revealing.
Don’t ignore the option of local or regional schools –most do exceptionally well with their results and produce excellent, well-rounded adults without the pressures of city life to distract them. Grammar schools are generally excellent and offer an outstanding academic education (albeit without many of the frills) even if there existence is contested. While more difficult to get into than the majority of public schools, many are well worth every consideration and a thorough investigation if you are in area.
If you are looking specifically at boarding, do not be seduced by excellent menus or five-star accommodation – while we all want the very best for our children, there is intense competition among public schools to provide the best with little regard for whether this is the best thing for pupils – after all they are just responding to market forces. Consider what the comforts of life at this stage might do for the pupils’ life-long expectations. Universities cannot compete with the hotel-like accommodation that many public schools offer and the progression from this to university digs, inner-city flats and self-catering can be too much.
Look also at where education is going –many parents are looking at schools where the International Baccalaureate is available as one of the last true currencies in global education. It is something that you may wish to consider if you want your child to finish school with an internationally recognised qualification although the IB suits the more conscientious and able student and that it has its limitations also. Look also at what other courses are on offer: BTecs, IGCSEs and in the future, T Levels. The more possible pathways the better despite your own aspirations for your child.
Don’t be over-impressed by facilities; chances are, at many schools, your child will never get to use most of what is on show, whether through timetabling, diffused talent or inclination. Some senior schools are unnecessarily ostentatious, unduly ceremonious and carelessly profligate. Ask what percentage of fees goes on salaries, on in-school entertainment, on buildings, on IT; look carefully at the fabric of the School and try to ascertain whether you are paying for an elaborate programme of aggrandizement or are buying into a school that minds its funds – your prospective fees.
Ask, instead, about the responsibilities placed on the pupils and what is expected of them; ask about the composition of the parent body, although everyone will make something different from the answers they get; ask about the code of discipline, the teaching of life-skills, the amount of money children have and the attitudes and social mores of the students you meet. After all, they are the School in its raw and most honest form.
Be wary when schools talk of waiting lists and entrance requirements. In the first instance, waiting lists do not apply if your son or daughter is able to enter through the scholarship route. The truth is most senior schools don’t know for sure if they are over-subscribed or not until the February of each year, as parents are often willing to put down deposits for several schools to retain the freedom of choice until the last minute. I often got lists of expected pupils sent to me from senior schools that are quite out of date or erroneous (one had four expected pupils, none of whom, it happens, were now going to that school). It is only in the Lent Term of Year 8, when Common Entrance entries are received from the prep schools, or o the completion of entry tests and acceptance of offers that senior schools have an accurate guide on expected numbers. Yes, you do have to make contact early, for peace of mind as much as anything, but do not get bullied by senior schools for significant early deposits and do check on their policy as to what happens to the deposit should your son / daughter fail or should you be advised to change schools for ‘academic reasons’ at a late stage. Remember, if you are unsure, many schools will ‘pre-test’ pupils to give you an indication whether the school and pupil are suited. While not always that reliable, they do help to give further information for parents and can act as a guide as to whether it is worth pursuing a particular school.
Ask how the school monitors (and responds to) alcohol use, cigarettes (the most usual precursor to drug use) and drugs, both social and class A. If the school has a smoking or drink culture or treads too lightly for fear of upsetting the mental health of the adolescent in any substance-abuse issue, beware. Good schools with proper pastoral systems and with good counselling services can offer proper help without abrogating their responsibility to act firmly in establishing an acceptable code of behaviour. Beware also of the school that stamps too heavily on the first-time offender without taking any on-going responsibility for rehabilitation and education – after all, each school is there to help its pupils and zero-tolerance when ways are open to monitor substance-abuse say a lot about the heart of a school. Ensure, also, that you agree with the school’s stance, that you buy into it and understand it and its ramifications, even if it befalls your own child. Sometimes we want zero tolerance until it affects us. Children who are risk-takers and do most to make us proud often are the most likely to let us down too. Children will make mistakes; they have to learn by them; good schools will help them to do so while also protecting the rights of other pupils.
If you have a daughter, think carefully before entering her into an all-girls school at the end of year 6 (I would say the same for boys, but the problem only rarely arises) for their role model then becomes an 18 year old. Apart from having to pay substantially steeper fees in most cases, girls lose the opportunity to be top of the tree and often, by Year 12 end up moving to their local 6th form college or co-educational public school.
While it is quite sensible for girls who leave a school that finishes at year 6 to move on (and where they would have had that accolade) those in prep schools up to year 8 benefit enormously from staying put. Many pupils find more than five years in the senior school is too much. This is not always the case and, of course, depends on the individual, but it is certainly a consideration to bear in mind.
Of course, good public schools provide a lot more than a good academic education and we read in prospectuses a plethora of clichés from providing ‘a balanced education’, realising ‘all-round potential’, ‘building character’ and so on. Strengths in sport, music, design technology, art and drama amongst others are usually very well catered for in the majority of public schools. Opportunities abound for individual talents and strengths to be nurtured and developed, but it does rely on the students wanting to avail themselves of what is on offer and making the necessary contact and commitment. If your son or daughter has a specific strength / interest, ask how it will be developed and nurtured. Different schools have different areas of specialisation, often linked to an outstanding teacher / department or a particular strength that the school has fostered. Schools do vary and cater for all tastes and interests. And even, heaven forbid, if you want your child to have airs and graces, there are schools that still deal in providing those, although usually at a price.
In this day and age, you need to consider whether you want to send your son or daughter to a school where they will lose touch with their peers and the diverse and disparate society they are growing up into. Having said that, an important (though seldom admitted) function of public school in some parents’ eyes is to help provide the right sort of friends and contacts who will help oil one’s child’s progress in life and open doors. Sometimes, it seems we don’t want our children to deal in reality and look for ways to help them from doing so. Sometimes public schools can be seen as buffers against the temptations and excesses of the real world. Parents need to realise that postponing entry into a tougher, more demanding world doesn’t always make life any easier in the long run. Decisions need always to be made for the right reasons and for the child, not the parent. Look at how schools deal with the interface between school and community, whether they have a strong charitable role in their community, whether the Duke of Edinburgh scheme is alive and well.
It is crucial to meet the Headmaster or Headmistress and evaluate their role in the school, in promoting the ethos, in leading by word and action. How long do they have to go in the job? When they go, what else goes too? Do the children and staff respect them? Remember, the Deputy Head is often the pivotal figure in the day-to-day running of the school, particularly in larger schools. If you are looking at boarding, the housemaster / housemistress is crucial in your decision. A school with a strong boarding and pastoral staff is generally a strong school.
Know what you want for your child. Don’t assume the paying of fees guarantees success – as an investment, spending a good deal of money on education is not a cast-iron guarantee of anything! – indeed, in any good school, while the collective returns are good, the individuals paddle their own boat and just buying the vessel does not minimise the significant individual financial (and occasionally social) risk taken by parents.
As parents (as well as pupils) survey the mountain that looms before them with an increasing degree of trepidation, it is not all despair and gnashing of teeth. A good prep school can equip pupils for life and what children learn
here will, I hope, provide the rigour and backbone for wherever they go on to. By thirteen, a positive attitude, good communication skills and work habits should be well set and the self-discipline necessary for success thereafter should already be instilled into the character of your child. To a large degree, you can feel reassured that, by the time your children are aged thirteen, the bulk of your work as a parent has been done, but not all. The decision of choosing the right school for the next five years is still very important to ensure that your son or daughter is given the best start in life, by learning the right skills, the right attitudes and the right values.
For parents applying from overseas, do not be blinded by the schools whose names you may have heard of – they are often the loud and vexatious ones, good at marketing, but not always all that they might claim to be or are imagined. There are many good senior schools scattered throughout the country so do seek help in finding your way around the marketplace. Coming from abroad it may seem impossible, but with the appropriate professional help and guidance, finding the best school for your child can be a rich and exciting journey
About the Education Consultant
William Clarence Education offers unbiased advice on UK School and University Placement, Oxbridge Admissions, US College Applications, UCAS application and extensive support for parents and students in all aspects of preparing for entry to the UK. Please contact us on 02074128988 to discuss your particular needs, or email firstname.lastname@example.org