Fiona McKenzie, the senior education consultant at Gabbitas, advises on how to choose a senior school.
As your child heads into Year 5, your attention will no doubt turn to explore their options for senior school. You may well find yourself trawling through brochures and websites that will be keen to emphasise the attributes of the school, but often barely go beyond the surface. On top of this, you will probably be receiving input from relatives and friends, all of whom will have strong opinions on which school they would recommend. But the most important aspect to remember is that you are trying to choose a school that is right for your child. So where do you start?
We would recommend your first stop should be talking to your child’s current teachers. They will know your child’s strengths and will be able to share their professional opinions to recommend schools that might be well suited.
Consider as a family which aspects of a school are most important to you and draw up a list of ‘non-negotiables’. This is anything you deem important for your child and may include academic standards, a particular extracurricular activity or pastoral support. In addition, it is important to consider at this stage your preference of curriculum all the way up to post-16. You don’t want to be caught out later on if your child is actually more suited to IB over A-levels, for example. Decide your priorities for your child and then start to draw up a list of schools that fit the bill.
Open days are a great opportunity to visit the school. Although they are ‘show’ events, they should give you a flavour of the school, a sense of its ethos and culture, and whether it feels like a good fit. It is also a chance to see other families looking around, as you may well end up on the touchline with them in future years! Following on from open days, draw up a shortlist of four or five of your favourite schools and arrange to visit them on a normal working day during term-time.
What to look for on your term-time visit
This is a chance to really discover what the school is all about. What type of school is it and does it fit your priorities? What are its core values? What is the learning environment like? Does it encourage the development of softer skills such as emotional intelligence and resilience? What does pastoral support and discipline look like? What are the facilities like and what’s included in the extracurricular programme?
This is your opportunity to have all your questions answered. Make sure you have a list prepared in advance and remember; you are the customer and this is your opportunity to ensure you make the right investment.
Talk to students and staff
A visit is your opportunity to observe and chat to staff and students. Do the children look happy and engaged? Expect to meet students and ask them what their favourite thing about the school is or even better, what hasn’t impressed them! Do the same with the staff, challenge them on staff turnover rate or their thoughts on leadership in the school. Overall, take this opportunity to find out what makes the school special. This is your chance to hear first-hand what the culture looks and feels like.
It is particularly important to consider how the school will prepare your child for higher education and the workplace. In a time where it is hard to predict which jobs will even exist, what is the school doing to prepare students for these unknown professions and develop individuals who are adaptable, enquiring and resilient? How is it ensuring its students are adept in a global environment and accessing a global education? This is also a perfect opportunity to dig deeper into where the students exit to and how they will be supported in the next phase of education, training or employment.
The final details
It’s important you leave the visit with key information about applying and, vitally, ensure you know your deadlines. Also, make sure you have transparent details on fees and scholarships or bursaries so there are no surprises later down the line.
Inevitably this can be a daunting time for parents. Using the services of a good education consultancy can help to relieve much of the workload and ensure decisions are made in an objective way. A good education consultancy can use assessment tools to help find out your child’s potential and match schools accordingly, and also help prepare them for interviews and entrance exams. It can also support you as your child progresses on their education journey by keeping you informed of possible opportunities and challenges.