Choosing the right school for your child

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There are a number of factors to consider when choosing an independent school for your child

In our area of London, we’re lucky to have great state schools as well as a number of excellent independent schools. So what added value does an independent school offer, considering you are likely to be paying around £18,000 per annum for fees – and what should you look for when choosing a school for your child?

While only a small percentage of children – around seven per cent nationally and 13% across London – go to one of the 2,600 independent schools in the UK – what they can offer are great facilities, a calm focus on learning and the skills to take them on in life. According to the Independent Schools Council, research by a leading psychometric testing company, found that private school pupils, across all ages, tended to be committed, confident and resilient to setbacks.

Most schools hold their main Open Days or Evenings through September, October and November (with more in the spring term), giving you and your child the chance to see the school in action, look around the classrooms and grounds, check out the facilities and talk to teachers and current pupils. Below are the main things to consider when choosing the right school for your child:

Academic ability
There is a lot of competition for places at the more academic senior schools, but it’s important that you choose the best school for your child’s ability, so they can shine rather than struggle. Senior independent schools have a selection process – an exam followed by an interview. Don’t be surprised that class sizes aren’t necessarily much smaller than state schools. Prep or junior schools are not generally selective, but if you’re keen on a particular senior school then do look at which schools they feed into before making your choice.

Curriculum
Prep schools offer a wide range of subjects and also guide pupils towards the 11+ and Common Entrance exam at 13.  Check which subjects are offered by the independent senior schools you visit – particularly if your child has an interest or talent, such as drama or sport. Check whether the school follows GCSE and A Levels or alternatives such as IGCSE and IB.

Single sex or mixed
Many senior schools are co-educational, whether all the way through or from Sixth Form. It’s said that teenagers are less self-conscious in single sex schools and less distracted during class. However, others say co-education offers the chance for boys and girls to mix easily and offer a wider perspective on subjects.

Facilities & extra-curricular
Most independent schools have superb sports facilities. Many have great playing fields and sports halls on site whereas other schools bus the children to sports centres and grounds elsewhere – which means you could be doing a lot of picking up after sports events.  Check what extra-curricular activities are on offer during the lunch hour and after school. Clubs and organisations are a great way for children to mix with others outside their class and helps them to pursue new interests.

Scholarships & bursaries
Scholarships are mainly available for academic skill, music, sport, drama or all-rounders. If your child excels in a particular area enquire about the exams. They are not means-tested but based purely on ability.
Bursaries are means-tested and are awarded to families where it would not normally be possible to send the child privately, due to the cost. Different levels of bursary may be offered – often from around 25% upwards, but each school will have a different policy, so ask early on.

What to ask on the day
You can get a good feel for a school just by wandering around, but do ask questions as you go. The teachers are, of course, keen to promote their school. Ask about the ethos of the school, how they deal with discipline and bullying strategies. First year pupils usually help out on the day so encourage your child to ask them questions, for instance, what they like about the school.

Exams
Even though you may be keen on a particular school your child still has to pass an exam to get in. However, an offer of a place is not always dependent on the highest scores. While some take only those who show the highest academic achievement, many others take children from the top, middle and lower tiers academically. If your child does well enough, they will be asked to come for an interview, which is an important part of the selection process. Ask the school whether it provides old exam papers. Test papers are also available online from companies such as Bond or can be bought from shops such as WHS.                                 

Pippa Duncan

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