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how can you tell a good independent school?

(29 Posts)
abbiefield Mon 09-Jun-14 18:57:41

I shall probably wish I had never asked this. I am considering sending my DC to an independent senior school .I am unhappy with the state choices. I have read a lot about extra curricular and how good as chool is academically etc. here, but some posters refer to something I am finding hard to recognise - "polish" expected of an independent.

I am not exactly familiar with independent schools.
I can tell a bullsh*tting state school a mile away but how do you recognise this or its apparently opposite, "polish" in an independent one?

All the ones I have seen look pretty much the same to me. Clearly I need to know what I am looking for.

Help much appreciated. Thanks

Biscuitsneeded Mon 09-Jun-14 19:07:42

Hmmmm. Spend some time talking to the children who go there. What do they say about it? How do they treat you and each other? Chances are, if you like the way they are, it's a good choice for you. Think about what each school is particularly known for, be it academic success, sport, drama, music etc and pick according to your own children's needs/strengths.
I can't afford private and am unsure whether I would want it even if I could, because I think those children lose out on some experiences while undeniably gaining some others. However, I do agree that that 'polish', which is a mixture of self-confidence and old fashioned good manners, does seem to be something that is produced by a private school education.

SamVJ888 Mon 09-Jun-14 19:57:27

I think you need to be really clear on what you want from a private school and what will suit your child best. For example some schools are academic hot houses and produced extremely well educated children, some are really sporty and some have exceptional pastoral care. Very very few do all three.
I'd agree to speak to the children who already attend the school, I wouldn't bother with schools who do their open days on a separate day to a "normal" school day, any school can look great with only limited children on site, you want to see a school in full flow, how the children conduct themselves around school plus in lessons.
Look at the standard of entrance exam, some schools ensure the children get a 100% pass rate in gcse and a level but they only accept exceptional children through the doors. Some have a separate school they move the less bright kids into and then publish just the results from the more academic side.
Finally if you can speak to parents of children at the school you're interested in. When I was looking for a school for my daughter I did and after being told by a parent at my preferred school that "they even accept some children from council estates here if they are exceptionally bright" I knew despite its excellent reputation it wasn't the school for us.

SamVJ888 Mon 09-Jun-14 20:10:17

Just read my reply to this and wanted to clarify my comment on "they even accept some children from council estates here if they are exceptionally bright". I meant this wasn't the school for my daughter as I don't want her growing up thinking people are defined by where you live or how much money you have, unfortunately some parents at private schools do think this way and it's not something I wanted my daughter to be exposed to.

frogsinapond Mon 09-Jun-14 20:38:00

look at the behaviour of the pupils. When dd & I attended a sixth form open evening at the top achieving school in the county and were literally pushed out of our seats no less than 3 times by some obnoxious year 5s from the same school we decided whatever the academic results it wasn't what we wanted. If they'd had polish I imagine they would have charmingly asked if we minded awfully moving up a little so they could sit with their friends, or better yet survived on the next row of seats in a smaller group rather than just shoving.

happygardening Mon 09-Jun-14 21:42:58

I think it's very difficult to choose. Most independent schools have very able marketing depts who are very adept at telling parents what they think they want to hear. The children you meet are unlikely to be inarticulate clods who hate the school. Finally many independent school are virtually identical so many have those ghastly videos with a popular piece of classical music being played with staff and children stating that their school is wonderful and completely unique. ISI reports arent worth the paper their written on and I personally feel the same about the GSG my DS's old prep was unrecognisable when reading both.
Decide what you want, for your DC sporty academic all round, draw up a must have list, golf course, twice weekly ukulele lessons,, Sanskrit IGCSE, don't assume they will be there, paying doesn't mean it will, ask if it matters, then list things you'd like to be there, try and visit the school more than once, listen to what other parents think, even if you disagree it will help you decide, try and talk to children when they're relaxed and not being expected to look good for parents, listen to teachers, go and see ones you think you'll hate again if only to convince you the St X is right and post about individual schools on MN. There will always be those who just think it's perfect and those who hate it although have never set foot in the place but some parents might give you an honest warts and all opinion. I always try to when people ask me about my DS's school. Try and find one that suits your ethos on life for example as a uniform loathing hopelessly liberal slack parent I would be unhappy at a school where boaters were worn, I was expected to actually supervise prep and the school was stuffed with petty rules, he as a non team sports player doesn't want to forced stand on the rugby/football/cricket pitch three times a week.
No where is perfect of course but you need to try and find somewhere that comes closest to your ideal.

Taz1212 Mon 09-Jun-14 22:10:37

We ended up letting DS decide. Academically the independent schools around here are much of a muchness but they each have their own feel. After DS attended the entrance exam at his current school, he walked out saying that he didn't care if he got in anywhere else, this was the school he wanted to go to. He loved the morning, he loved the teachers, he liked the other students he met and he loved the campus.

I was a bit unsure- thought the school would be too big for him- but DH and I decided that if it left that strong an impression on him compared to other schools, it was probably the place for him. grin

summerends Mon 09-Jun-14 22:17:57

I would just add that if academics are important to you, try to find out whether there are reports of pupils regularly requiring tutoring outside school. The results of a school may be relying on 'top-up' by parents. You probably don't want to be paying for tutoring as well as school fees and your DC will have even less free time.

Mutteroo Tue 10-Jun-14 23:20:57

Think about what suits your child and what suits your family. Do you want an academic school or an all rounder? Boarding or day or both? How inclusive is the school? How are parents viewed - hinderance or help?

The ethos has always been the main attraction for us, plus as DS was planning to board the house/housemaster was extremely important. Not such an issue for DD who never wanted to board, but it was vital that we felt as comfortable with the school as our children did. We were lucky to have a good selection to choose from. Appreciate not everyone is lucky enough to have this choice or the finances to pay for independent schools.

roguedad Wed 11-Jun-14 19:32:13

Just want to endorse what SamVJ.. said. There is a lot of diversity in the private sector and the balance academics/sports/music/drama/pastoral balance can vary massively from one school to another. What subjects are offered at GCSE and A level varies more than I ever imagined, so think what is likely to matter to your DC. You might ask for sample timetables, staff lists etc to see what the school really values.

Toapointlordcopper Wed 11-Jun-14 22:31:25

Narrow down your choices in terms of the schools you are thinking of and ask on here.

Or narrow down your must haves (weekly/full? Sporty? Quirky? Home Counties?) and ask on here.

Everything else you read/are told is suspect (including the 'objective' school guides) and all the schools will tell you till they are blue in the face why your child is exactly the perfect match for their school. My litmus test when I go round schools is to ask the head/senior masters what kind of children might not be best suited to their school. So far only two schools have addressed that question with anything approaching honesty. Everyone else bullshits and tells you how proud they are that they can extract the very best from every student. Yada yada yada.

Taking a look at the schools by visiting them can help you decide but again you only see what they want you to. Academic success data on the website helps, too, but this is usually a product of the entry requirements, and may not reflect true value add.

So, which schools are you thinking about?

iseenodust Thu 12-Jun-14 10:15:35

If you are looking locally and your DC does outside activities take more of an interest in which schools the older children go to and see how they speak of their school & behave.

Some things become clearer in your mind as you go round schools. We knew we wanted an academic one but in the end didn't choose the one that in my perception offered best added value we chose the more academically selective in the hope of wider friendship pool.

Dustylaw Thu 12-Jun-14 15:04:50

I don't think it's any different to choosing a state school in that it is still about choosing a school that you like and feels right for your child. For example, if 'polish' isn't on your list of important things then don't even bother wondering what it is and how you are expected to see it in a school. Like iseenodust says, just go to see a lot of schools (including some you don't think are likely to suit - and you may be surprised anyway) and you will soon get your eye in. If you come across examples of polish, then do please say!

Ladymuck Thu 12-Jun-14 15:30:52

Where possible I think it is worth seeing if you can view the accounts of a school. Many independent schools are registered charities and so their accounts are available for free on the Charity commission website, whilst others are available form the companies house website for a small fee. These are the most recent accounts of Winchester College as an example. They may give some insight into the overall business strategy behind the school as well as give indications of increased or decreased demand for places, and insight into scholarships and bursaries awarded etc. It can be helpful to have a different perspective of the school, especially if it is one where you are likely to have longer than a 5 year involvement.

Otherwise, as has already been said, I do think that the overall ethos of the school is important, especially in terms of home/school life balance. Are you happy with levels of prep, sport, weekend fixtures, exeats etc. What does an average week, term feel like?

AMumInScotland Thu 12-Jun-14 16:11:02

See if there are any OFSTED reports - they do them for the 'pastoral care' side of independent schools, so this can give you a feel of the place.

Look at the parts of the building that they don't try to push you towards. We went round one place that made a huge fuss about its new science block, but then we happened to go down a back staircase that had a broken handrail. That sort of thing gives you a clue how much of their attention goes on the 'flagship' projects and how much they can be arsed keeping up the basic maintenance.

Look on their website - if possible, the part for the actual pupils and parents, not the 'advert' one. Find the list of school rules. Would you be happy to have to enforce those rules for several years, or do they sound like they are more about conforming to some plastic ideal than actually keeping children safe and able to learn?

We crossed off a primary school when we read the bit about expecting children to finish all the food they'd been served 'as of course they would at home'. It was a major clue that their attitude to child-rearing was very different from my own and we'd have clashed constantly if I'd sent DS there.

Muskey Thu 12-Jun-14 16:29:07

We made our choice as a family. We visited 3 schools and each family member scored the school out of 10 for things like nearness to home, subjects taught etc we then had 5 bonus points to give for any school that we liked for any particular reason. It was odd the school that I thought I would like the best was the school that scored the lowest as none of us liked the head despite the school having the best facilities and was the most easiest to get to. What annoyed me the most was the head saying that she likes having flower arrangements in the school which were lovely but I would prefer the school fees going on the children rather than on flower arrangements.

happygardening Thu 12-Jun-14 16:40:17

AMum I think you'll find that boarding/pastoral care inspections are now usually carried out by the ISI ofstead stopped doing them for schools already inspected by the ISI 3-4 years ago. ISI reports are generally meaningless.

AMumInScotland Thu 12-Jun-14 16:52:09

happygardening - Ah, I'm out of date then, it's a while since I had to research schools grin

JaneParker Thu 12-Jun-14 17:17:32

Depends where you are. We limited ourselves mostly to top 5 - 10 schools by A level results across the UK and best good university places won and the most academically selective we could find. Worked very well. Only works if you have those kinds of schools near you and if you have a bright child however. We also wanted single sex and non boarding.

abbiefield Fri 13-Jun-14 18:26:20

Thank you all for the replies. I think we are looking for a nice school. I know so many MNers say naice - but really, that is what we want. I do not want my DC in a school with lots of disruption and so many other pupils there is barely room to breath in a school. Schools which are nothing more than buildings full of stairs and 2000 children heaving at the seams.

So, we were looking for a small nice school. DC is fairly academic but isnt one who likes to be pushed too much. Does well enough without - currently coming out top of the class in state school.

I think we are interested in getting a traditional type of education as opposed to a SATS and NC led one. I get fed up with seeing results which I know are gained by teaching to test and exam factory methods.

Not really interested in sport but I know nearly all independent schools are big on this anyway.

DC does not want to board so we are narrowed by that.

But I am going back to look at them all again with the comments made here in mind.


Toapointlordcopper Fri 13-Jun-14 20:02:21

Shiplake college.

Job done.

Toapointlordcopper Fri 13-Jun-14 20:03:00

<might not be absolutely ideal if you have a daughter, mind>.

abbiefield Fri 13-Jun-14 21:31:22

Toapointlordcopper - Shiplake College might not be exactly perfect ifyou dont live in Oxon either ( I looked it up).

Whilst I found your earlier comments to be fairthy true tomy own experience I find it hard to see why you suggest this school.
I am remoneded of something I read on another thread where a poster suggested that sometimes schools are recommended by their marketing staff on here. Do you work for Shiplake?

Anyway, I am not in Oxon, Dc does not want to baord (and is female - but Shiplake take girls so I dont see where that comment came from).

I will be looking at local schools in my area which btw is Sussex.

Toapointlordcopper Fri 13-Jun-14 23:09:33

God, no. I'm not in education, have just done the rounds for my own kids and spent far too much time treading the same path you are on (as have many of us in here). We decided shiplake was just too small, too gentle for our own rather rambunctious son. But it is far and away the most pastoral place I have ever been to, and has a very strong reputation for being so - something very few good senior schools have a standout reputation for. St Eds also has a good rep for all round care but again is in same general location (but also predominantly boarding).

Girls are indeed admitted to 6th form, but it is very much a boys school.

For your area I would be looking at Brighton college if it is within striking distance - it also has a good rep for for having a very friendly culture, although it is increasingly becoming very academic. We'd have picked it for one of our DCs if it had been close enough to us.

Toapointlordcopper Fri 13-Jun-14 23:10:26

FWIW there are a few MN who are linked to some of the big schools but they certainly don't hide it on these boards.

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