There is no such thing as the perfect school; every family is different, and every child is an individual with specific needs and requirements from their education.
Parents need to make decisions about what is best for their children when moving to a new location and looking for a new school. Some of these decisions may be tough. Added to this are the often- underestimated complications of meeting deadlines for complex independent admissions arrangements and entrance examinations.
At this year’s Independent Schools Show in London’s Battersea – where hundreds of the UK’s leading independent schools came together to help parents choose schools for their children – Relocate
heard from some of the country’s most esteemed headteachers about matching schools to children’s individual needs.
Setting aside emotion
Before parents engage with the quantitative research that is involved in finding the right school for their child, their initial shortlist may be influenced by unhelpful emotions and unwarranted perceptions of a school’s attributes, said Sir Anthony Seldon in his session, Action for Happiness.
As vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and former headmaster of Wellington College, Sir Anthony warned parents in the audience of the dangers of selecting a school because it was fashionable or popular. He also advised them not to choose a school because they themselves would have liked to attend it.
"Don’t choose what you
want," he appealed. "It is not about you. During my 20 years as a head, the parents that would worry me the most were the parents that were choosing the school for themselves."
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Ben Thomas, who has been headmaster of Thomas’s Battersea, an independent school for boys and girls aged from four to 13, for the past 20 years, agrees. He set out in his session, How to Decipher Senior School Entrance, that it was worth keeping this in mind on visits to popular schools.
"I’ve been through this process as a parent myself, and I know how tempting it is to be carried away by the visit," Mr Thomas said. "You get excited by what your neighbour is doing, by the branding and by the league tables. But you need to be broad-minded. Choose a school that is right for your child, not a school you wished you had gone to when you were their age."
Sir Anthony Seldon also warned of relying on glossy brochures and impressive websites. He believes that parents should take care to determine whether or not the school will be able to offer a rounded educational experience for all children.
"Look for a school that is going to develop the whole child, that is going to have that truly holistic approach," he said. "Look at what the school is like for the children who are not 'superstars'. All children just want to be able to take part, to be in musicals, to go on trips, be in teams, to be part of things, to make things happen. Is it a school that really does that, or does it just do it for the high-flyers?"
The value of league tables
School league-table positions are another issue on which schools, education consultants and education commentators are divided. They can offer a broad snapshot of how a school is performing academically, but, if that school selects its pupils on the basis of academic performance on entry, good and consistent results are to be expected, so they are less illuminating about what gives a particular school the edge.
Sir Anthony Seldon spoke passionately about the unhelpful nature of the league tables. "Having taken two schools towards the top of the league tables, I can tell you that they are a load of total tosh!" he exclaimed. "They are pernicious, and they are deceitful. They are loved by two types of people: by headteachers who take their schools to the top, creating a regime of fear, and by newspapers, who love them because they sell copies."
He continued, "Actually, some of the best schools in the country, indeed in the world – and I think that British schools are the best in the world – are in the middle or at the bottom of the league tables. It therefore follows that some of the worst must be at the top."
Ben Thomas suggests that parents use the league tables to offer an insight into where their child might find the best fit academically. "You have a wonderful opportunity, which is to place your child in an environment where they feel confident," he said. "You could take a child and tutor them to the hilt. You could squeeze them into the most selective school in the country, and you’d feel very pleased that you had got them in there.
"But then, they might very well spend the next five years at the bottom of the academic range of that school. They might be in the top 1 per cent of the country, but they will be at the bottom of their peer group. They could come out of the school feeling incredibly inadequate, and that could affect their confidence for life.
"The same child could have gone to a school with a broader intake where they felt very secure, worked hard to achieve the results that the top set were getting. At the same time, they would have the confidence to pursue their sport, music and their drama. They would develop as fully rounded, flourishing human beings.
"Just bear that in mind. Many parents look at the league tables and assume that the top-performing school will be the best school for their child; it may be the worst. You have to be honest with yourself about where your child will fit in academically."
Setting the league tables aside, what are the factors that parents should focus on when looking for a new school? Barnaby Lenon, former headmaster of Harrow and current chairman of the Independent Schools Council, advised in his session, How to Choose the Right School for your Child, that parents needed to address one or two big questions when looking for an independent school: day or boarding, and coeducational or single sex?
Parents may have a strong view either way about the boarding-versus-day and single-sex-versus-coeducational question, but Ben Thomas believes they should make the decision based on a full consideration. Even if they feel they already know what they want for their child, he counsels them to take a look at the alternative.
"Go and look at, at least, one school," he told his audience at the show. "At least discount a school on what you see rather than on what you hear."
According to Dr JoAnne Deak, a neuroscientist from the US who has spent years studying the teenage and adolescent brain, 75 per cent of girls are likely to perform better academically in an all-girls school and 75 per cent of boys will do best in a coeducational school.
Antonia Beary, headteacher of Mayfield School, Sussex, a Catholic independent boarding and day school for girls aged 11–18, endorses this view. "Girls and boys mature at different rates, so, in a learning environment, it makes sense to give both girls and boys what they need at each varying stage in their development. Girls’ schools provide an education that’s carefully tailored to the needs and developmental stage of each girl."
"One of the great benefits of an all- girls school is that there is no gender stereotyping," she says. "Girls don’t just enjoy equal opportunities, they enjoy all
opportunities. Girls excel as much in physics, engineering and design technology as they do in English, drama and art."
However, Ben Thomas advises that parents take a step back and look at the bigger picture. "The most sensible advice I’ve ever heard is that a good school is a good school. You have to decide what your priorities are as a family. You may feel it’s more important to take advantage of the social aspect of growing up alongside each other, that this is great preparation for the world. You may be very focused on academic achievement and so decide that single-sex is best."
Entrance exams and admissions
Owing to the complex nature of the admissions process and selective examinations system for independent schools in the UK, parents are advised to start their research as early as they possibly can – not always an easy thing to do when families are in global transition.
Barnaby Lenon explained that the first thing parents would need to do was to make a shortlist of the schools that they were interested in, and then establish and confirm the timings of these schools’ admissions arrangements.
"For some schools, it’s absolutely fine, there’s nothing to worry about," said Mr Lenon. "You can apply right before the beginning of the school year. For others, the deadline just to fill in a registration form can be years in advance."
Ben Thomas backed this up. "It can be enormously frustrating for a parent to find a school they really want for their child only to be told that it’s too late to register," he told the audience. "But it can be a very hard system to understand, mainly because there is no centralised system. These schools are independent; each school gets to decide how they want to admit children. The system is, there is no system."
Transition to independent school at the ages of 11 and 13 are the main competitive points of entry, but the arrangements and deadlines for registering for these tests and the accompanying interviews and school visits will vary from school to school.
"The minute they are seriously interested in a school," said Ben Thomas, "it is vital that parents find out when that registration deadline is."
It can be a very competitive process, sometimes with up to 600 children registered for just over 100 places in popular schools. "But it’s complicated by the fact that the same 600 children are also registered at four or five different schools,” said Ben Thomas. “The figures are inflated. It will look like there are thousands of children going after the same places; in fact, it does settle down. The more parents register, the worse it looks, encouraging parents to register for more schools to enhance their chances."
Although it is easy for parents to get caught up in the short-term concerns of doing the right thing at the right time, it is important that they are encouraged not to lose sight of the broader perspective, Mr Thomas added.
"Schools should be able help children to develop psychological and mental skills to cope with whatever life throws at them," said Sir Anthony Seldon. "Just as happy companies are the most successful, happy children are also the most productive.
"We all know that happy companies find it easier to recruit and retain staff and will have higher productivity. The same will be true of schools that really care for the worth and individuality of their pupils. If they are happy at school, children will want to be there, they will want to please teachers and they will learn much more."
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