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You’re probably picking the wrong school for your child. Here’s why 

Adam Larkum illustration
Have you been distracted by the glittering brand of a particular school? Credit: Adam Larkum

One size doesn’t fit all when choosing a school. Parents should park their obsession with brand-name schools when fit is far more important.

“Choosing a school is like buying a house,” says Janita Gray, editor of the Good Schools Guide. “You do the research, check out the area but ultimately you make a decision on gut instinct.”

And that’s no bad thing, she says.  But parents, most heads and advisers agree, can be swayed by kudos and league tables – which can be an unreliable benchmark for a child. There are some 2,500 independent schools in the UK and they vary wildly in fees, facilities, performance and destinations. 

“Too many parents are obsessed by a school’s reputation and place in the league tables without bothering to see if it’s right for their child,” says Gavin Horgan, head Millfield School, in Somerset. “There are some brilliant schools which aren’t in the premier league. Parents should be guided by instinct and knowledge of their kids.”

There’s a lot of nonsense spoken about rankings, agrees Jimmy Beale, a former head and founder of the consultancy The English Education. “Elite schools perform brilliantly because they select brilliant pupils. Parents who go solely on brand are doing their child a disservice.” Plus, there’s little difference in performance among the top 20 or so schools, says Mr Gray. 

So, what should parents look for? 

Whatever they say, it’s academic success that parents invariably want, as well as the pastoral, cultural and sporting focus. Look for the “value added”, says Mr Beale – how schools raise the relative academic performance of pupils over the years. And then there’s the question of culture fit. “Speak to pupils and ask, ‘Do I want my son or daughter to be like these children?’” In the independent sector, a lot of what you pay for is extracurricular, says Ms Gray. 

“It depends on your purse. Less expensive independent schools still offer smaller classes [and] a selective cohort, but may lack the roving acres of the bigger beasts. But they are value for money.” There’s nothing wrong with seeking out high achievers, says Sally Jones, who selected King Edward High VI High School for Girls (Birmingham) for her daughter because of its “powerful educational brand” and for its friendliness.

“It’s cool to be clever there; it’s a close-knit, tolerant school. I, and many other parents, preferred this sort of atmosphere to that socio-economic homogeneity you find in traditional boarding schools.” But a sensitive mid-level student might feel a failure in a school with a strong emphasis on academic achievement. “Some children are inspired by a bright peer group,” says Ms Gray, “but others will suffer if they feel they are bouncing around the bottom, especially if the bar is set high.”

When it comes to prep schools, the choice is wider. “Some parents will chase a ‘brand’ for their child’s senior school, but far more will prioritise finding the right fit for prep,” says Christopher King, head of IAPS (The Independent Association of Prep Schools) which represents 700 schools. IAPS research shows that parents choose private school because of worries over large class sizes, concerns their child is falling behind or fears that his or her needs are not being met. 

“Parents don’t want to wrap their child in cotton wool forever,” says Mr King, “but they want a gentle environment where you don’t have to be a street fighter to be successful.” 

But, as a teacher of a Hampshire prep school says, parents fall into the word-of-mouth trap: “Sometimes they’ll pick a school on reputation, because their friends chose it, because one of them went there as a child, because the playing elds are big or because it feeds into a certain academic senior school. None of these is the right reason, but schools are reluctant to point that out, because they want bums on seats.” Reputations hang around until they’re long out of date, says Ms Gray, and you’ll need to untangle your own experiences from your choice. 

“Don’t listen to Mumsnet,” says Mr Beale. “Just like with a car, there are always dissatisfied customers.” Shortlist half-a-dozen schools – visit at least four, he advises. Open days are useful, but you can also request an individual tour – seeing a school in its everyday mode is more revealing. Speaking to current students will help build a picture.

 And the best schools communicate well with parents. “There will be rocky moments, but if you get on with the staff, minor problems can be resolved,” says Mr Beale. “If you don’t feel you could have a good relationship with the school, then walk away.

Talking heads

Here is some advice from heads of independent schools around the country on finding the right match for your child.

Liz Laybourn, Head, Burgess Hill Girls, West Sussex:

We’re in a competitive area, but we’re not Roedean and we’ve never tried to be. We stand by our own ethos. Parents need to get under the skin of a school, look at the relationship between school and community – they should look for the value added. I honestly think any type of girl could come here, providing they are willing to have a go. I want to make sure they leave as their own person. I love the individuality of our girls – they’re interested and interesting.

 

Barnaby Sandow, Head of School, ACS International School Cobham, Surrey:

If your idea of a good school is tied in with tradition, uniform and heritage then ACS is not for you.  No one has to look the same or be the same to get on, and we don’t do things the same either. That’s not to say we don’t have high standards of behaviour or learning but we’re all about creativity, individual approaches to learning and teamwork – on a global level.  

We teach the same subjects, take conflict in history for example, but from the perspective of all the students in the class – perhaps British, Dutch, Japanese, Armenian or American.  That’s far more exciting and relevant to kids today. 

 

Bernard Canetti, Brampton College, Hendon:

We do not adopt a rigid admissions policy. We look for students who are willing to work hard, be genuinely engaged, keen to succeed and subscribe to our values. They need the background knowledge and aptitude necessary to complete the course successfully, but we would question enrolling an individual who doesn’t demonstrate a drive and desire to learn.

 

Rebecca Lyons-Smith, Headmistress, St Swithuns Prep School, Winchester, Hampshire:

No two schools are the same and so it’s important to think carefully about the differences and, putting aside your own aspirations for a moment, consider what it is your child would get from each particular school environment.

Life is not easy for young people today, and for this reason it is also hugely important to consider a school’s pastoral care provision. Most schools say they educate the whole child; but check what schools actually offer to support children with friendships, with their mental health and wellbeing, and with navigating the complexities of our times.

Emma Goldsmith, Head, Winchester House School, Northamptonshire:

Our children are perfectly summed up as being “perky”. We oer a rich soil for them to put down roots and grow. The children who thrive with us are curious and develop a thirst for learning in and outside of the classroom.

Their well-being is of utmost importance, as happy children learn. We would not suit a family looking to hothouse a child and focus only on academic life – we develop the whole child to face any challenge thrown at them.

Have you had trouble finding the right school for your child? Let us know in the comments below.