How to choose a new school in the UK

Relocating with school-age children is one of the biggest challenges a family can face. To ease the process, our step-by-step guide to choosing a school suggests questions to ask on a school visit, with advice from the schools themselves.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Sevenoaks School

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 When it comes to a successful relocation, finding the right school is often ‘make or break’. Throw into the mix a new house, a new job and even a new country, and just thinking about the to-do list becomes exhausting. However, careful planning and good advice can help to take the pain out of the process for assignees and their families.

Researching UK schools

First things first: parents need to roll up their sleeves and get down to some serious research. Casting the net wide to start with can help families to understand what they really want from a home and school, and what they would be prepared to compromise on.There are many excellent schools to choose from in the UK, so much so that international families can often feel overwhelmed with choice. Making an initial shortlist based on practical matters is a good starting point.School search and education advice - connect with our in-country experts“When we work with international clients considering education in the UK, we always suggest they begin to shortlist their options based on a number of core logistical components,” says John Ing, director of Dukes Education Group, a consultancy that provides families with education guidance and private tuition.“Parents should first make decisions based on where in the UK they will be living, considering whether an urban or rural environment would be more suitable, whether they are looking for a day school, boarding or a flexible plan for accommodation, and whether they are seeking a single-sex or coeducational system.”Often, homes in the areas surrounding good schools – regardless of whether they are fee-paying or state-funded – can come with a hefty price tag, so it’s vital that families are realistic about what they can afford.It is likely that oversubscribed state schools in England will require families to live close to the school if they are to stand a chance of being offered a place. It’s important, therefore, to ensure that the chosen home is both affordable and falls within the designated area of the chosen school.Likewise, deciding between state schools, independent fee-paying schools and an international school will depend on budget, as well as on other considerations, such as the length of the assignment and the standard of education in the area.

Working with education consultants to find the right school

When parents have settled on a budget and a geographical area, they will need to create a clear picture of what is most important to them and their child. If you are using the services of an education consultant, remember to specify if you are looking for a state education, as some will only cover private education. Make sure they are familiar with supporting relocating families. Consultants who deal specifically with relocation clients will understand the time frames and requirements of a move, including home search, orientation, removals and visa issues. They will be used to dovetailing their support with relocation management companies and destination services providers.

What to consider when choosing your ideal school

The first step is to prepare a wish list of the ingredients that will make up a perfect school – for example, proximity to home, availability of sports facilities, music or theatrical opportunities, or just good and consistent exam results.Andrew Gillespie, director of studies at d’Overbroeck’s, a co-educational independent secondary school in Oxford, advises parents to take the whole school into account when making a decision. “Parents are rightly interested in the academic success of students and what alumni have gone on to do, but the key factor for any parent is that their child will be supported, encouraged, looked after and helped to develop their skills. So look for a school where your child will be allowed to be themselves and where they can develop.”Once they have established their wish list, it’s time for parents to start gathering prospectuses and brochures and browsing websites.At this point, it may be worth suggesting that parents compile a spreadsheet of schools available to them and the information that can be gathered before visiting, including the facilities, the curriculum taught throughout the school, details of exam performance, the latest inspection rating, the pupil-to-teacher ratio, and the numbers, types and costs of extracurricular classes.Families will then be able very quickly to eliminate schools from the long list of those available to them and start to create a shortlist of those that appear to meet their child’s needs.

What to consider when you visit a UK school

No matter how much information parents gather about their shortlisted schools, there is no substitute for visiting a school in person.“There are many great schools and parents find it hard to even select the right criteria for choosing a school!” explains Marzia Di Bella-Negi, head of marketing and admissions at Padworth College, a day and boarding school in Berkshire for students aged from 13-18. “It is a good idea to visit lots of schools and to talk to work colleagues in similar circumstances to understand their experiences.”The main points for parents to consider on a school visit are:
  • Do they feel welcome as they enter the school?
  • Are the staff friendly and confident? 
  • Are pupils involved in the school tour? Are the children friendly, polite and confident? 
  • Are the school resources well treated and respected? 
  • How long has the headteacher been in post? This provides evidence of stable leadership 
  • Can parents visit during break or at lunchtime to see how the pupils interact? Do children have a good relationship with staff? 
  • Are the administrative staff friendly and helpful? They are the people with whom parents will be communicating on a daily basis 
  • How does the school communicate with parents? Does it produce regular newsletters? Can parents see copies? 
  • What are the displays on the walls like? Are there photos of children engaging in lively, interesting activities, such as field trips and community involvement? 
  • Will the child have an orientation visit or be given a buddy to help him or her settle in? 
  • What extracurricular activities are available, and how many of them are free? 
  • How much scope is there for involvement in a parents’ organisation? Does the school offer programmes and support for accompanying partners? 
  • Ask if the school provides options for prospective parents to talk to current families. This enables parents to ask candid questions about the school environment, as well as offering a potential network of essential support after the move
In addition many schools offer taster sessions that give the child first hand experience of life at the school and can help families to decide whether a school is a good fit. These are particularly useful for families who are considering boarding options. One such school is Vinehall, a co-educational boarding and prep school in Sussex. “We offer taster boarding – this can be anything from a couple of nights up to two weeks so that students can get a really good feel for boarding life at Vinehall,” explains Quelli Coles, Vinehall’s housemistress. “This is really important for pupils so that they can be confident that they have made the right choice of school.”

How much will it cost to travel to and from school? 

One crucial consideration that parents may forget to put on their list of priorities is transport from home to school. Can the school be reached on foot? If not, they will need to consider whether transporting children by car will become tiresome and costly after a period of time.Some fee-paying schools provide special bus services, and some counties in England provide free buses serving state schools, but these will be dependent on where the family chooses to live.After going through all the selection criteria, families should remember that a happy child is likely to be the key to a successful relocation. Although a school may seem to tick all the boxes, it is important to make the right choice for the individual child and often gut instincts play an important role.This article was refreshed on 25 July 2019.
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