What can an independent school offer your child?

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There are more than 200 independent schools in London offering great facilities, pastoral care and support as well as academic success.

Why consider an independent?
We have many excellent primary and secondary states schools locally – among the best in the country – so what can independent schools offer? Class sizes tend to be smaller, although not always by much, but it is the the calm focus and expectation of learning that is attractive to parents, as well as often excellent facilities, whether that is state-of-the-art laboratories, a large performance theatre or onsite playing fields.

‘Hot-housing’ and elitism?
It would be hard to find a school that says it ‘hot-houses’ its students, but most obviously do work to ensure each child learns to the best of their ability, which they want to show in their academic results. But this doesn’t come from an overload of classes and homework, but by encouraging an interest in learning and taking advantage of extra-curricular activities, such as the debating society, adventure society, film or photography clubs.  Good pastoral care ensures that any concerns are identified as early as possible to help keep the child on track.
While private education used to be an option for just the wealthy, this is no longer the case. A parent could just as easily be a taxi driver as a lawyer, with around 32% of pupils having fee assisted places*. Some schools are now aiming to have 25% of pupils fully funded by bursaries, giving bright children who would not normally have had the chance to attend, the opportunity to do so.
Most independent schools are also actively partnering other local schools or organisations in their local community, sharing facilities and offering grounds for sports use. Theatres are also open to the public for NT Live productions.
However, it is still only a small percentage of children – around seven per cent nationally and 13% across London – who are privately educated. Research by a leading psychometric testing company, found that private school pupils, across all ages, tended to be committed, confident and resilient to setbacks, according to the Independent Schools Council.

Academic results
While you obviously want your child to get the best academic results they can, choosing the right school to suit their needs is more important than just going for the one that tops the League Tables. They could get better results from a smaller, more nurturing school, that maybe takes pupils with all levels of ability, than one that gets the highest A Level grades. 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.

Fees, scholarships & bursaries
Fees average around £13,600 per year, although this rises to £15,900 for London schools.

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. However, there is a shift to giving bursaries rather scholarships.

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. Schools are actively partnering organisations to help children get a partial or fully funded place. 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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