Open To Advice

2nd September 2016

It can be challenging to navigate the proliferation of independent school open mornings and admission procedures. Lisa Botwright offers some guidance.

Despite the fact that it only seems nano-seconds ago that you were changing nappies, you’ve blinked, and now it’s time to start choosing a school for your little one … but where to start?

It’s a happy reality that in our little corner of north west London / south west Herts, there is a huge wealth of great independent schools; but that doesn’t makes the choice any less overwhelming. Unlike maintained schools, in which your preference is often constrained entirely by your postcode, there is no such limit in the independent sector. Parents can look as far afield as family life allows.

Visiting in person is a must, in order to gain a personal ‘feel’ of the school, but more of that later. Initially, it’s all about drawing up a realistic shortlist and noting their open mornings in your diary.

Children begin formal education – ‘big school’ – in the September after they turn four, and most application deadlines are the autumn before that. It’s worth beginning your search as early as possible: give yourself an extra ‘insurance year’ to take the pressure off. Autumn is a very popular time for open mornings, so it may not even be feasible to visit everywhere on your list straight away.

Ask yourself some key questions as you trawl through the websites. Would you prefer a prep school or a through-to-18 school? What are your thoughts on co-education versus single sex? Logistics are very important, too. Can you accommodate the school run with your own journey to work? What about siblings? Does the school offer extended hours?

And you need to decide whether the ethos of the school reflects your family values. Are you academically ambitious for your youngster – investing in an independent education to give them the best possible springboard to a top university? Or are you happy for your child to move at their own pace, exploring a holistic and broad curriculum within an environment where sport, art and citizenship are valued equally alongside the core subjects? These two scenarios need not be mutually exclusive, but it’s worth a little bit of soul-searching to examine your priorities.

Most schools prefer you to make contact before you come along to an open morning – you may be asked to email or fill out a pre-registration form, but this can mostly be done easily online and may save you from filling out even more forms when you get there. For some of the smaller schools you may need to phone ahead to book yourself in, and this is a great opportunity to ask any questions you may have; definitely a good way to gauge initial impressions. Rest assured though – if you’re less than organised, it’s unlikely any school will turn you away for not pre-registering.

You may confusingly find open mornings being called ‘school in action’ mornings or ‘school tasters’ – they’re all broadly the same. Often the biggest difference is that some are during the week in school hours and some are at weekends. If you can take time off work, it’s best to visit when you can observe the natural dynamics of a school day – but schools take great pains to ensure that weekend open events are still buzzy, with lots going on, and plenty of opportunities to chat with staff and pupils.

If you can’t make the planned open mornings, feel free to request an individual tour. These may be with the Headteacher, Head of Department or the Registrar (which is most schools’ name for the designated Admissions Co-ordinator), depending on its size. Bear in mind that some of the bigger settings are inundated with applications, but a polite request from a genuinely interested prospective parent should definitely be accommodated.

Each school runs their open events differently, and your experience may vary considerably: you may be shown around in groups or individually, by staff or by pupils. When you arrive, ask about the itinerary of the day – will there be an opportunity to meet the Headteacher, and will they be speaking formally at set times or mingling informally over coffee? Are there friendly sporting events going on, or music or drama recitals? (Schools love the opportunity to showcase their talented pupils.)

As you move around the building or buildings, you’ll see the facilities on offer. Are the computers up to date? Are there whiteboards in every classroom? You’re looking for evidence of investment in the school, which will show if the establishment is flourishing financially.

Are the displays on the walls creative and inspiring? Exciting displays will reflect exciting and dynamic teaching. Are the teachers welcoming and approachable? Ask to see the children’s books. If an adult lingers suspiciously-long over a pile of books in a attempt to pick out their brightest pupil, ask to see examples of differently attaining children. Have a look at the natural progression between the different age groups.

If your tour guide is an adult, hopefully you’ll still have the chance to chat with some of the pupils. Children are disarmingly honest – and although their teachers will have chided them to be on their best behaviour, you’ll know instantly if the general atmosphere is anything less than happy and motivated. Look for big beaming smiles as they talk about their school, pride in their work, a respectful but easy going relationship with their teachers; as well as courtesy and good manners to you as a visitor and amongst each other.

Ultimately, if your shortlisted schools have objectively ticked all the boxes, the visit is all about gauging the subjective stuff that the website can’t show you: the charisma and vision of the Headteacher, the passion and kindness of the teachers, and the vitality of the children… it’s the indefinable alchemy of all these factors that makes you think – yes, my child will flourish here.

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