Choosing the right prep school
UK Education Consultant, Peter Tait, offers education expert advice on the criteria you can employ and questions you should be asking to make the task of choosing a UK prep school a lot less daunting...
“The rule of thumb in deciding what is a great prep school is whether it would make your child feel great.”
When deciding to look at prep schools for your children, you will invariably have a list of requirements based on your own experience and knowledge, as well as a number of questions you will want answering. To help narrow the options, there are several criteria you can employ to narrow your search such as the proximity of the school to home (especially important in choosing a pre-prep); how the school dovetails in with your own lifestyle (is there an after-school club, for instance, or does the school day cover the working day); whether the requirement is for day, flexi- or termly boarding; or whether the preference is for single-sex or co-educational boarding.
In ticking off each of these broad considerations, other secondary factors will come into play. For instance, does the school offer any transport (local bus routes or airport links)? Just how flexible is the ‘flexi-boarding’ they offer? Are there entry requirements that need to be met? Is the school secure and financially viable ( if in doubt, you should look up their accounts at Charity House)?
It is at this point – after the initial questions have been answered, prospectuses read and websites analysed that you would make arrangements to visit the school. By now, you will have most likely used other sources and accessed education expert advice to assist in building up a profile of a school including inspection reports, social websites or the word on the street, and have a fair idea of potential matches for your child. In making a telephone call to the Registrar or school office (which, as your first point of contact, can tell you something about the way the school communicates and responds to parents), the search proper begins.
Once you have reached this point, paradoxically, it is worth putting all you have learned to one side. The advice of current parents will inevitably be biased in favour of their chosen school whilst websites and prospectuses are shop windows only. Having done your preliminary research, it is only when you visit the school that you will find the evidence to corroborate (or otherwise) your initial impressions. This is where you will see the school in operation and gain a sense of its workings, its ethos and the whole-school community.
On any visit, one key thing to look for is how happy and relaxed the children are. Good manners and acceptable behaviour are, of course, important, but if children don’t give the impression that they enjoy being there, or seem unnaturally passive, then your antennae should begin to twitch. Meeting the Head and members of his or her staff, will be the next determinant. It is important that you identify with the people to whom you are entrusting your children. The Head of Pre-Prep or Prep, form teachers and the house parents (if applicable) are key personnel. Don’t place too much stead on the Head alone as you are choosing for the future and they might well not be there for. But do ask them about their vision and plans for the school, and if they are aspirational for more than just new facilities. The staff you talk to should be approachable and know what they are about (having a philosophy of education and an idea what their school is about). If they are enthusiastic in what they do, they should enthuse your children also.
You may want specific things from a school. For instance, you may favour a broad curriculum, perhaps with some defining features (i.e. a range of foreign languages, or particular strengths such as in music and art). You may want a school that offers the Primary Schools Baccalaureate, the Prep Schools Baccalaureate or one that favours Common Entrance. You may want to see evidence of academic success in terms of senior school entry, but not at the exclusion of all else. If you are thinking your child is potentially of scholarship standard, ask how the school caters for its top pupils. It is worth noting that most prep schools do well academically, so much depends on entry requirements and the demand for places. Schools that are non-selective will have a greater range of ability and also a greater diversity. So long as the most able are capable of getting into the top schools, that should be enough.
Education expert advice will warn you to beware of schools that place extra emphasis on homework and academic results above all else. The same can also be said of a school’s sporting success when it detracts from the enjoyment of the children. Competitive sport is an important part of prep school life, but should be for the pupil’s benefit, not to shore up the school’s reputation. Too often one hears of children wanting to give up sport as soon as they reach senior school because they have been put off by overzealous sports coaches.
A fundamental role of prep schools is to prepare the child for the next stage of their education, to give them an appetite for learning and the skills, attitude and application to become independent learners. Look for schools that encourage the move from dependence to independence. Excellent schools should have high expectations and encourage children to think and ask questions, rather than merely teach their subjects, however well.
Parents can be seduced by the range of activities on offer, but try to resist judging a school solely on its extra-curricular programme. Any school worth its salt nowadays has more activities than any child can safely manage. Instead, look to see if the school allows enough free time for children to make their own fun and friendships without having their time micro-managed. A confident school gives children time and space and the opportunity to manage both.
The same can also be said of impressive facilities, which parents invariably end up paying for one way or another. School meals were hugely improved upon a generation ago, and a glance at a menu and the dining hall should tell you whether a school is providing healthy food for your children.
As any education expert advice will indicate, the most important people you will meet on your tour, by far, will be the children. If you get the opportunity (as you should), do talk to them. Ask yourself if you find them to be children first and foremost – rather than serious young adults with the childhood drained out of them. Are they happy at the school? Are they enthusiastic about what they do? Are they the sort of children you would like your own child to be like or spend time with?
During your visit, you should also ask about the school’s links with its neighbours. Good schools will live alongside (and not apart from) local schools and community. Also, ask about the policies on mobile phones and whether their values and views reflect yours. Ask about incidences of bullying, but beware of the school that denies that anything untoward, such as bullying, might ever happen there – it could, and probably does. What is important is to find out how schools deal with incidents and educate their children in learning the right values and behaviours.
In looking at separate areas of the school, there will be other subjects to explore: with pre-preps, it may be the home-school partnerships, especially in the early years or afterschool clubs. With day schools, it may be bus routes or, with boarders, it may be specific questions about care, routines and weekend activities.
Deciding on a school is a very personal experience and it is usually the atmosphere in the school that will guide your decision. The rule of thumb in deciding what is a great prep school is whether it would make your child feel great – not by telling them so, but through allowing them a sense of achievement and a sense of belonging. In making your choice you need to trust your instincts as to which school best suits the academic and social needs of your child and is best able to nurture their specific strengths and character. Not all schools suit all children, and you don’t have to explain why you choose one school over another. Having made your decision, it is crucial to support the school and staff. The benefits of a good prep school education in instilling the work ethic, motivation and self-discipline for life-long learning are second to none. By making an informed choice, you have already done the most important thing for your children in their young lives.
About the Education Consultant
Peter Tait is a former independent school Head and is part of the William Clarence Education Advisory Board
William Clarence Education offers unbiased expert education advice on UK School and University Placement, Oxbridge Admissions, US College Applications, UCAS application and extensive support for parents and students in all aspects of preparing for entry to the UK.
Please contact us on 02074128988 to discuss your particular needs, or email firstname.lastname@example.org