Simon Northcott: How to Choose the Right School for Your Child
PUBLISHED: 11:02 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013
by Simon Northcott, Headmaster of S.Anselm's Prep School.
There is a huge debate raging about what types of school are the best. Luckily for you, the consumer, there is great choice. That choice can, however, be very daunting. To want the best for their children is the natural instinct in all parents. That decision is often moderated by circumstances, and by your financial restrictions, so tough decisions have to be made.
Investing in the early years of your child's education is key. What is vital in schools like S. Anselm's is laying the foundation for a successful future for your child. That is what a good prep school does, it in effect 'prepares' its pupils for what lies ahead. If your child stays in that prep school until age 13 they will have completed the lion's share of their schooling by the time they are ready to leave. This does assume that a private education is the best option. That assumption is not always true - there are many excellent state schools, be it in the primary or secondary sector. However for the sake of this article I will focus on the private independent sector. There has been much written about why independent schools offer a superior product. I shall not repeat those arguments here, suffice to say that, in wanting the best for my children, they will go down that route when the time comes.
There are certain hard-nosed decisions that need to be addressed at the start of your selection process. These tend to be unemotional and are therefore more straightforward to make. These issues include how much can we afford? How far are we willing to travel? This might be on a daily basis, or if it is a boarding school, it might relate to weekend visits. Do we want a single sex or co-educational school? I am a fan of the co-educational model as it reflects society and life in general.
Once you have a long list, the decision-making becomes more thorny. What is crucial is finding the right school for your child. Each and every child is different and you as parents know them best. In this respect the child must fit the school, so beware any school that claims to be the best for all children. Certainly large schools do have the variety and niches that enable all sorts of pupils to thrive, but that is not the case with them all.
Emotional decision-making is a far less exact science, and can be akin to house hunting. In trying to detect the atmosphere in any one school, the father and mother will often pick up on totally different factors and therefore have very different 'feels' for any one school. Your job when school hunting is to focus on strengths and weaknesses, to find the 10 per cent difference in a school that makes the difference and affects the atmosphere.
In the right atmosphere your child will flourish. So the atmosphere and happiness are crucial. A good feeling can be created in many ways but perhaps most importantly it is created by people. Education is a people business, so getting to know the headmaster/mistress, and key people in the school (a housemaster if a boarding school) is vital. You have to trust their judgement and relate to their core values. They will be your main point of contact. Testimonials from current or ex-parents can be very revealing and are definitely worth exploring.
Other things are easier to assess: facilities, the culture surrounding academic learning (is the school driven to achieve exam success, or is there more of a holistic approach to education), are manners and appearance good, and are the pupils as you would want your child to be at that age?
Ultimately though I believe that the key to choosing the right school does come down to atmosphere or 'feel'. Choosing a school can be a daunting process, but it can be incredibly rewarding when you get it right. Happy hunting.