What should I look for in a private school(19 Posts)
We are thinking of sending our dd to a private prep school and are planning to start looking at schools this autumn. What sort of things should we be looking for to find a good school and are there any pitfalls that we should avoid?
Depends what you want - highly academic? Good sporting results/facilities? Broad curriculum? Co-ed? Loads of homework? Our children have just finished their first year at a private school and it is fantastic, even better than we were expecting, but one of DS's classmates was also new this year and came from a smaller prep school that sounds truly awful...If you want to CAT me I'll tell you which schools they are and you can see what you think of both of them from their websites!
Have you got the Good Schools Guide? Its market is really parents looking for a private school. You could have a look at what sort of "headings" the write-ups in that seem to cover and use that to see what areas you might want to think about - ie, sporting amenities, academic demands, pastoral support, special needs resources, art'n'music, how hard it is to get in, and so on.
Something often mentioned as a pitfall to avoid is a school that's owned by its headteacher - as opposed to one with a board of governors, say - can mean parents are stuck if things go wrong. However, not automatically a bad thing. Depends on the headteacher (as always).
We chose ours on the very simple basis that (i) it is co-ed, and in our bit of London the private schools are mostly single-sex; and (ii) it's very very international and I strongly wanted ds and dd not to go to a school that was uniformly blond and blue-eyed.
Also smaller schools may be less financially secure and sometimes close with little notice. Oh, religious affiliation is another issue to consider (never thought I'd send my children to any sort of religious school but actually it's working out fine, and we're not the only atheists there!) The Independent Schools Council website is pretty useful, and most private schools seem to have good websites too.
Agree with everything Binkie said. Also, check class sizes, ratio of teachers and teaching assistants to children in class, where the year six children go to after prep (and how many are given scholarships/bursaries), what the fees actually include (I mean, what is the point of saying the fees are X but there are also compulsory charges for lunches etc - eh????? - just tell us the price!!), discipline policy, whether the school offers a range of extra curricular activities - I could go on and on - oh I think I just have! Most important of all, visit the school while the children are in class, and talk to the children themselves. They are the best barometer and will give you the best idea of whether the school will suit your DD. In the end we actually allowed our DD to choose which school she wanted (from our own short list, I might add). Of course the other thing you will have to consider is admission policy - I stupidly thought if we had chosen to pay we could pretty much choose which school we wanted. Oh how very wrong I was!!!!
Two more things:
- many, but not all, private schools are covered by ISI , which inspects & produces reports which run along similar lines to the Ofsted ones - I would get hold of those too - easily available online. I think I wouldn't consider a school which wasn't inspected; and
- something which really divides private schools (and parents) is whether they're selective or not. Ours isn't (that was reason no. (iii), really didn't want the situation of them accepting ds but not dd, or vv) - but non-selective schools tend to have a waiting list that fills up very early. One school secretary laughed lightly when I said ds was 18 months old, and suggested I write an apologetic covering letter explaining why I hadn't registered him before his first birthday. We didn't pursue that one.
I agree with ks's comment, too: you do need to feel comfortable with the other parents. Again, at our school the parents are massively diverse culturally, nationally, racially, religiously etc. etc.; but somehow not very diverse in values - overall they're a rather well-educated and sober lot. Suits me!
What really swung it for us about school choice was something that MI said. You need to ask yourself, when/if the s**t hits the fan, will the school stand shoulder to shoulder with you, ignore your issues or, with one eye to their results and ranking, even hastily suggest that your child might find "an alternative educational environment more appropriate". The kind of s**t I'm thinking about could be anything from a learning problem such as dyslexia or dyspraxia that reveals itself only after a few years at the school or health issues (yours or your child's) to collapsing childcare arrangements, redundancy, divorce or bullying.
I've already got a few qualms about the school at which DD will start in September(mostly about the other parents cf KS' point), but when we asked to talk to the form teacher about DD's background (Inter-country adoption) she immediately offered me an appointment, any day at any time to discuss it and when I explained that we would never get the uniform to fit DD, the headmistress offered the services of the Home-Ed teacher to help us alter it! That reassures me that we'll get the right sort of response if we encounter any big issues.
Although it is time-consuming, I really recommend seeing a few different ones. We have one local one which has a very good reputation but I really did not like the headmistress - she was very chilly and remote and the children seemed to me a bit stiff round her, but I admit this was just a personal thing. The one that we ended up with has a very good M/F mix, is non-selective (both DCs have moments of utter brilliance and moments when you think they are destined to be complete muppets!), a sibling policy and - my personal bugbear - a reasonable uniform. Some of the private schools round our way seem to think that they are dressing the children as luxurious Victorian poppets - NO, NO, NO: I am not paying good money to have my child dressed in corduroy knickerbockers and a sleeveless puffa jacket, for example, and I don't think that a school that does this and I have a common ethos. Ditto don't think a school that makes girls wear long sleeved shirts with pie frills round neck and cuffs is really going to teach them how to be independent and feisty. Phew, rant over.
When we looked round the school we ended up with, there were lots of touches that we really liked - mixed football teams, good number of male teachers, lots of IT stuff etc.
Agree with most of this, I also found that taking DD with us to look round the shortlisted schools was very enlightening.
Yes, school uniform and the message it sends - little ones at ours wear red tracksuit & white t-shirt most days. And no required supplier. However, older girls have beastly checked skirt, so may have to move dd in due course.
Ditto on What If There's a Problem - re educational difficulties, non-selective presumably a better bet. We're in that very position in fact & the school is being pretty supportive; but it's a bit amateur - private schools don't by and large have the expertise for anything more than borderline problems - quite a lot of them asking me what I suggest. Presumably that's not an issue for you though?
Should just mention that no private school will be perfect (well I guess there might be a few perfect ones), so it's a matter of ranking your priorities. For us the priorities were a friendly supportive atmosphere, non-selective, emphasis on academic achievement counterbalanced by appreciation of other achievements and activities, the 's**t hit the fan' test (we think that DD's school deals reasonably well with dyslexia, dyspraxia and just general not being the sharpest knife...), communication with parents, reasonable ethnic mix.
Having or thinking we have found that, we had to just 'go with' the rather preposterous uniform. None of the horrors to which Anchovy refers, but nowhere near my ideal of standard trousers/skirt, polo shirt and sweatshirt. Having said that DD1 does look very cute in it . And as for the parents, early indications aren't good, but I'm keeping an open mind and telling myself I don't really care that much as I work full time anyway.
Re uniforms - at DC's future school the girls wear what looks like a navy corduroy skirt with an inverted pleat at the front but is actually a pair of sort of culottes, which they wear with bright knitted tights underneath. I think that says - girls, you can play football in the playground if you want to. I think pie-frill cuffs say, girls, you cannot go anywhere near a bunsen burner. Just a little theory I have!
Good point Anchovy. The headmistress of DD's school is retiring next year (another thing to watch out for polkadot!) and I'll be lobbying after that for a change to a more practical and less expensive uniform.
Thank you all for your posts, the have been very helpful. I didn't know about the websites and these are especially good.
Another point I would make is that don't feel you have to stick with one school for the whole of their educational life, we are moving dd this September (yr 4) to a larger more "dynamic" prep as she has outgrown the small cosy one that she has attended since reception.
Re ks's point about other parents, I have come to the conclusion that all private school parents are weird (presumably inc. myself ) as they are all on different and separate agendas about what they want for their child from the school.
Second reading the Good Schools Guide (you can buy it online or do what I did which was to subscribe online to read it for a year).
Issymum, that is so sweet about the Home-ec teacher offering to alter the uniform! My sis has a little shrimp starting reception at a very posh central London school (with unifom to match) in September. Shrimp nephew is still in mini-Boden age 2-3 and looks like a little baby mole in his blazer and cap!
Agree about the silly uniforms, tho' actually I'm slightly schiz about it. On the one hand, I have a sneaking fondness for the whole 1950s Christopher-Robin-meets-Rachel-Riley aesthetic (in contrast to the Woolworths/B'wise aesthetic of my kids' primary school) but it is deeply pretentious and the practicalities of it would hack me off massively.
Interestingly around here (champagne socialist Islington/new Labour Hackney) the private schools either have no uniform at all or go for something generic that could pass for a stateschool to the uninitiated. So I think the uniform does tell you something about the kind of parents the school is trying to cater for.
I would also suggest that you use the Ofsted website to identify the three best (state) primary schools in your area, and go to visit them. The differences are illuminating and may help clarify what it is you want to be paying for.
Another thing to watch out for when visiting schools is that they will almost always pick the exercise book of the class genius to show you. This is done so subtly that you may not realise it's happening, so it's worth wandering round and looking at several to get an idea of the range of achievement. The private school I almost transferred by dd1 to was the only one where the headteacher didn't pull this trick. In fact she riffled right through the pile before commenting, "This child could hardly write when she got here, and now she's almost as good as the others."
A good question (particularly for pushy London schools) is: "How do you get the children to achieve their best without putting them under undue pressure?" That was one of the few questions that generated really revealing answers for us.
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