Andrew Peters offers some suggestions and guidance as to what to look out for and what may help decide a child’s future place of study.
We’ve collected all the marketing material, the glossy brochures and been lured into attending and probably signing up to too many school open days. If the marketing material is to be believed, the world of private education is one long summer’s day of rosy-cheeked happy boys and girls giving it their all, whether in the classroom or on the sports field.
The school open day is there to grasp the opportunity to see if these utopias are actually real, and most importantly whether a particular one will suit little Jonny or Amy.
It’s going to be exhausting. Time is precious, so how can open days be enlightening? Most are widely advertised on school websites, locally and nationally. It’s important to read the small print and establish that ‘welcome mornings’ are not ones limited to specific numbers that have to be booked in advance of the date of entry, which can sometimes mean years. Telephoning the school admissions department from the maternity ward is probably a little premature, but competition for places is high, obviously at the highest ranked schools and certainly in London. In some areas schools work in tandem and co-operate to hold their open day events on different days in order to maximise parental footfall.
Affording the fees
Let’s face it, school fees are quite a lump of cash. The Independent Schools Council advises that day school averages around £15k and boarding £30k a year. So, do the maths, multiply by seven, add trips and equipment, and the starting point is around £125k, and that’s assuming the child attends state primary school to commence their education.
What’s the best way to save? To start, set a realistic target for what needs to be paid and bear in mind over recent years school fees have outstripped inflation.
A simple premise is to start saving as soon as possible and get compound growth working for you. Remember two things, firstly interest rates aren’t going to do the trick, they’ve been poor and aren’t going to change in the near future. Secondly, investing in shares or any other assets carries risks along with the potential for larger gains. In the long run these should be better than cash, but this isn’t saving for a pension and the time frame is more limited.
For those who already have some savings or grandparents or family members willing to help, it may be worth exploring paying some of the fees in advance. Lifetime gifts to a certain level are free of tax. This, of course, assumes your child will be happy at the chosen school – not always a given. For the early years, cash will be need and some of the fees may be payable from income. Overall, probably the best savings vehicle will be an ISA as any savings placed in one grow free of any tax. The allowance per person currently stands at £20k per year, so a couple could save £40k a year tax free.
It helps to go prepared with comfortable footwear to cover the fair few miles up and down stairs and over sports fields following excited children who want to explore. Open days are usually held in autumn and early spring so the photogenic subject matter in the school brochure may appear a little different at first hand. The weather will be beyond the control of the Head, but everything else is: from parking to refreshments.
If these and other essentials aren’t up to scratch, draw your own conclusions.
Most open days feature a pupil-led tour which should be one of the most informative and enjoyable parts. Ask the willing guide lots of questions and keep them talking to obtain lots of insight into school life, bypassing the prospectus-speak.
Maximising the open day
• Read up on the school: do your homework.
• Be aware of, but don’t be led by league tables. They are based on historic information, the school may be changing.
• Dress for comfort, not to impress.
• Talk to other parents.
• Talk to pupils.
• Listen to the Head and governors.
• Take notes.
• Use all your senses: look, see, hear.
• Examine noticeboards around the school.
• Keep an open mind.
• Watch your child as they go round, listen to what they say.
• Ask questions.
• Trust your instincts.
• Don’t forget this is not about you it’s about your child.
These children will be a guide to the moral compass that exists in the school. Remember, an open day is a two-way process and if your child walks off with a handful of cakes or throws a tantrum whilst waiting to use the climbing wall, it will be noticed.
Many schools are well aware of this and regard pupils as one of their greatest marketing assets and potent source of creating a good impression. Sixth form guides tend to be unnaturally mature and demonstrate the diplomatic and PR skills more akin with (some) world leaders. It’s important that parents and potential students have this exposure to pupils as it helps develop a huge level of trust if handled correctly.
Use all your senses – look at the toilets to see how they are kept and, if possible, kitchens and other high footfall areas. Notice boards are particularly revealing about what the school is up to: organising trips, cultural and sports events planned and societies available.
King’s College Wimbledon
The Sunday Times London Independent Secondary School of the Year 2017/18
There are 433 boys in the junior school (ages seven to 13). In the senior school, there are 860 boys aged 11 to 18, with over 100 girls in the sixth form.
The school occupies nearly 20 acres on the south side of Wimbledon Common and owns a further 24 acres of playing fields nearby. The school’s boathouse is on the Tideway at Putney.
Dates to note
Whole school open morning Saturday 15 September, 9am–12.30pm
16+ open evenings Thursday 13 September and Thursday 4 October 6pm
11+ open evening Tuesday 9 October 6pm
Beware temporary glitz, this is a school, not a five-star hotel, it doesn’t have to look immaculate; this is a place of learning and everything seen should fit into the style and rhythm of the school.
Attend the Head’s talk as this enables parents to sit down, catch breath and allow time to absorb the atmosphere. People watch and gain a feeling for other parents attending. The Head should be inspiring and genuine with an innate pride in the school and pupils. It’s a tough act and a big part of his/her job, so if you find yourself nodding off then something’s not quite right. Look at the Deputy Head or Chairman of Governors to see how they are responding to the Head’s talk. If edgy and having to prompt, that may mean the Head is more figurehead than actual leader. Not necessarily a bad thing, but you do want a Head to connect with pupils and able to cajole and guide them.
It’s easy to place league tables at the top of a checklist, but they won’t tell the full story. Results are the destination, but what has to be undergone to get there – what’s the journey like? Exam results should not be looked at in isolation, so consider several years of results to see trends can be detected. Look at where pupils go after school as your child’s school is a stepping stone to the next stage.
You need to know your child. A selective school may choose the brightest pupils and therefore pretty much guarantee good and consistent exam results, but if your child isn’t a high flyer are there provisions to get the best out of them? Do you think your child requires support for dyslexia or other special needs?
Heathfield School students celebrate A-level success
Heathfield School in Ascot recently rated ‘Excellent’ across all areas by the Independent Schools Inspectorate celebrated sterling A-level results with nearly nine in ten students (89%) achieving all A*–C grades and over two thirds (70%) gaining all A*–B grades.
Despite the new, more demanding examinations, grades have significantly improved on last year with solid academic performances recorded across subjects.
Dates to note
Open day: Saturday 13 October 2018, 10am–12 noon.
Heathfield School, London Road, Ascot, Berkshire SL5 8BQ
Telephone: 01344 898343
Consider whether equal opportunities exist in sports. Schools tend to be competitive and proud of their achievements. Your child may not be the next superstar, but sport may be very important to their development. Ascertain if it’s only the A team that benefit from specialist coaching. Check the fixture lists to see if the lower teams have regular games.
Look at the pupil numbers as well. If considering co-ed for your daughter, it pays to look beyond the boy/girl ratio, especially if the school was previously an all-boys school. Ask the questions: do girls have strong role models? Are there good numbers of female staff in positions of responsibility? Pastoral care goes hand in hand with exam results and the school should offer as much information on this as they do exams. Is there a bullying policy? Have they had any issues and how were they dealt with? If a school says they have no bullying, then regard this as very suspicious, there’s always some at various levels and you need to know how quickly this is picked up and dealt with.
The open day will almost certainly be the first real contact parents have with a school of interest, narrowed down through dinner party chats, discussions with parents who may already have older children at the school, information the schools churn out, what can be gleaned from websites and, of course, those all-important league tables and inspection reports.
Hampton Court House
Hampton Court House is an independent co-educational school. We take children from Nursery (three year olds) to Year 13 (18 year olds). The Sixth Form opened in September 2015.
Hampton Court House is now a member of UNESCO Associated Schools (ASPnet). UNESCO is the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization of the United Nations. The main goal of the ASPnet is to promote quality education by reinforcing the humanistic, cultural and international dimension of education. Promoting the values of UNESCO, including tolerance, peace, human rights, cultural diversity and sustainable development seems something not only natural for HCH but also a good way to prepare our children for a changing interdependent world.
Our first action took place in June 2013 with the Lower Years Citizen of the World Festival which celebrated the different nationalities and cultures of our pupils.
In June 2016 headmaster Guy Holloway gave the keynote plenary speech on educational leadership at the UNESCO conference on 21st Century Education, held at Hockerill Anglo-European College, a leading state boarding school which is also a UNESCO associated school.
That’s the easy part and like all things it’s not the same as being physically in situ talking to staff and pupils and letting the distinct nature of each school seep into the consciousness.
So, from the school short list painstakingly assimilated, there are maybe three or more choices. Try and stay with three as having done the research it should be possible to narrow it down and any more can get confusing. Open days are an invaluable way to obtain that first and visceral response to a school, feelings impossible to gauge when looking at paper and websites. Parents have said that having narrowed the list down to similar schools on paper, the visit was the clinching factor and nothing could replace the feeling of actually viewing the school.
Of course, a parent’s own educational experiences, whether good or bad, will be hugely influential in any decision – a decision being made on behalf of the child. Your children may be very similar or completely different to you and although difficult, it’s important to try and separate your feelings and think objectively. If selecting a senior school, find out what your child thinks and consult teachers from his/her current school as to what they think is best. After all, they will have spent a lot of time teaching and getting to know your child in an educational environment.
Box Hill School welcomes HRH The Earl of Wessex KG GCVO to open state of the art Sports Centre
In glorious sunshine and in front of the assembled school and guests, HRH The Earl of Wessex unveiled a commemorative plaque to mark the opening of the school’s multi-million pound sports centre. The school boasts a long standing royal patronage having had a number of visits in the past including from The Duke of Edinburgh, The Duke of York and The Princess Royal.
Headmaster Corydon Lowde said “We were honoured to have His Royal Highness open our new facility, in particular because of the historic connection between Box Hill School and Gordonstoun, where Prince Edward was a former Head Boy. Both schools together founded the Round Square movement which now promotes holistic education as part of the distinctive philosophy of the educationalist Kurt Hahn - most clearly recognised in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme.”
The scheme of which The Earl is now leader also traces its roots to Kurt Hahn and Box Hill School has been a member for over 50 years. Students within the Box Hill community all engage with the DofE scheme through the Bronze Award and many go on to subsequently complete their Silver and Gold Awards.
The new Sports Centre is an impressive facility with indoor courts for basketball, netball, hockey and football as well as indoor nets for cricket, a multi gym, dedicated PE teaching space and changing rooms. Despite its size it sits comfortably in the landscape, dropped several metres below ground and boasting a tennis court on the roof. It is cedar clad and in keeping with the beautiful surroundings of the school’s campus.
We are delighted by the opportunity to extend our sports provision for current and prospective students and the recreational use it offers for our boarding community in the evenings and at weekends.
It can be overwhelming, not only for parents, but for the child as well. Take your time. It’s a big decision and time well spent now will be well invested in your child’s future.
Your child will be under pressure from all sides and you will almost certainly not have experienced the pressure of social media at such a young age. Finding a school that offers a good academic route, nurtures your child’s interests and is capable of operating and adapting to a fast-changing social world is the ideal. No one will have all the answers, but an informed choice is essential.