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Looking around 3 private schools early NY - what questions to ask?

(4 Posts)
Lioninthesun Fri 20-Dec-13 11:07:02

Hi all,

I have decided to have a look at the local private schools for DD who is 2.5, with a view to her starting in September 2014 in a pre-school.

I hope that I will just get a 'feel' for a school, (a bit like when you find the perfect house perhaps?), but am a little stumped as to what to ask as they all seem to have very similar facilities and extra curricular activities.

Can anyone suggest good points to raise or things to look at in more detail?


teacherlikesapples Fri 20-Dec-13 21:42:42

It really depends on your priorities. Having worked involved with a few independent schools over the years- I would say one of the biggest differences is pastoral care.

Thinking about a parent that I knew, that had some anxiety issues & struggled to settle their child into nursery for a multitude of reasons. One very highly esteemed school wouldn't tolerate her need to settle in her child over time "because that wasn't their policy". She pulled her out after a few awful weeks. Which made trying again even more difficult for both of them.

The school she ended up going for, was more flexible on their policy because they recognised that was in the best need of the parent & child at that time. 5 years later, the child is positively thriving. Academically and emotionally, the parent is also much happier generally. The first school made her feel like a failure- just because of their policy (which wasn't really child friendly for ANY child to be very honest)

Now- with that example, it is not really just about the settling in policy. It is about the school's willingness to place the needs of the child (and parent) above the academic.

Another area where schools seem to differ greatly is creativity- I would look at the art work on the walls. Try & spot work that is completely child made, not adulterated or 'improved on' by adults. Look for individual differences. If you are in a school where it is a wall of very similar art work, that looks a little too perfect, that would set off alarm bells for me. How are children learning to develop their own ideas if they are being told exactly what to do, when & how? That is not creativity or even developmentally appropriate for nursery.

I would observe the staff- are they happy? Engaged? At child level? How do they interact with the children? Is it directive or more warm & friendly?
What about the children- how much choice do they get over their activities across the day? How much fun are they having? How structured & scheduled is their time? What is the balance of child led: adult led? How does play feature in their provision? (Thinking about opportunities for children to develop critical thinking, independence & problem solving. Play provides the more appropriate way to develop these skills at this age- but relies of the right environment and staff to be effective.)

Independent schools also have more flexibility on staff qualifications- so I would be asking about how many have early years training & experience.

Well that's just a few to start, again it really depends on your priorities. If you value only academics, your list might look quite different.

Lioninthesun Sat 21-Dec-13 11:38:04

That sounds like excellent advice - DD loves painting and 'making' so I will certainly be paying attention to the artwork on the walls. We went to see the tree at the local library because 3 local nurseries had decorated it with their children's art. It was blatant which nursery had actually let a child near the sequins and paint for the decorations and the two who had had their staff up all night fudging paper baubles and Christmas trees instead.

Do you think the size of the school matters in the scheme of things? I was lucky enough to go to a school with only 30 children per year and the school had roughly 350 pupils in total. I think I worry that one of these schools has 800 students and that I suspect that despite small class sizes the teachers would be too stretched.

I was also a boarder but will not be sending DD to board. I am tempted to look around the boarding houses anyway, as I have varied memories of different Matrons, and I think that says a lot about how happy the children are and the general ethos of the school; if they have a battleaxe looking after 9yo's it is unlikely they feel they are loved and supported after school (which says to me in turn that the Head isn't too bothered about that rather important side of a child''s life).

One other thing I worry about is how the children react to people less fortunate - we have enough to send her for junior school at the moment and hope she will pass her 11+ after that for a grammar place. However I have heard nasty stories about one of the schools being a hot house for spoilt kids picking on the child who 'only has one pony'. I was lucky that we didn't have much of that at our school and it wasn't an issue (mainly because it was considered crass to boast, I suspect), but DD will probably not have the overly luxurious lifestyle that some of these children will have. It is possibly my biggest concern with going private but I don't think there is any way of protecting against it. Perhaps checking reading lists to see what moral support/lessons they are getting through their teachers?

mum2caelan Sat 21-Dec-13 23:40:34

Hi, we definitely 'got a feel' for the school we chose, but we still asked plenty of questions and did lots of research. If you're concerned that they do not currently offer extra curricular activities that you would like, ask about their plans for the future and their willingness to offer new clubs suggested by parents. Ask about class sizes and ratios and again any plans to make any changes within the next few years. Ask also if they have any form of parental involvement in the school, for example, our son's school has parent engagement group evenings in which we get the chance to say what we think the school is doing right, what we want to see change, and be involved in decisions about the future of the school.
Ask about contacting the staff, how easy it is to discuss anything with staff members or if it will only be possible on parents evenings. This way you'll know that if you have any concerns you'll be able to chat to staff.

We has always planned to send our child to public (private) school, and initially I hadn't worried about children noticing different financial situations or making an issue of them. Then someone told me their friend's daughter had been bullied for not having designer clothing. So I made a point of asking about bullying. I find small class sizes make it easier for bullying to be spotted and dealt with in the classroom. Check out their lunch and play time areas too, anything too big will make bullying harder to detect. Of course, uniforms don't prevent bullying because there are always non-uniform days and social events. Plus there are other ways for children to pick up on financial circumstances. Children can be mean and if a child is looking for a way to pick on another child, money is always an easy option, and this will be the same in state schools. I went to state school and I saw so much bullying of children who were poor, and also of a wealthier child for having more money. So it can go both ways and can happen anywhere, so don't let it put you off, certainly I don't think it will be a problem in the earlier years, but definitely ask about how they would deal with such issues so you can see how the school would react to such an occurrence. Going to open days will also give you the chance to meet some other parents and prospective parents that have chosen the same school(s) and help give you a feel for the school as a whole.

Make a list with your partner and anyone else whose input you value, of the things you'd like to know about the school and things you consider to be important for your child (eg art, languages, ofsted reports, class sizes, music etc) before you go and highlight the most important ones. If a school doesn't meet your expectations for a highlighted one, it might not be right.

Hopefully that helps, sorry it was a long post. Good luck and enjoy finding a good school.

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