By Kathryn Watson
I know this is weird but I love looking around Boarding schools! I enjoy trying to get under the skin of a school’s glossy veneer and get a sense of its character and culture. To be honest, I avoid ‘Open’ days because they are not really ‘Open’! I am sure the schools do try but it is unavoidably self-promoting and at worst a bit of a herding exercise designed to encourage you to register your offspring before you leave! We registered our eldest at 3 different Prep schools before he was 3 because it is never ‘too early’ to get the name down! With registration charges starting at about £100, the reality is that providing children with an ‘inspiring and lovely’ learning environment is an expensive enterprise right from the outset.
If you can manage it, ‘go solo’ and you will get a bespoke schedule which includes a meeting with the Registrar. When you call up, say you live a long way off or you can’t make the next couple of open days but have heard so much about the school and would love to come and see it. If you are lucky, you will get lunch thrown in, which has been in the company of ‘random’ pupils who are usually new to the school, plus a tour of the premises. In Senior Schools this includes a couple of boarding houses, dorms and bedrooms, communal living space, dining rooms and bathrooms. Around the school you visit Sports facilities, Art, Science, Music and DT Departments that rarely fail to impress. As you leave you are likely to be given a heavy bag brimming with promotional material. Some of these tours I have taken alone, some with my husband and some with the perspective child. Naturally, each of us focused on different aspects that helped in making an informed decision.
Five Key areas to look out for:
1. The House System
Who helps the house master/house mistress to run the House, is there a tutor for every child who has a day-to-day grasp of what is going on in their lives, what is matron like? How do the year groups interact, are there activities to help the new pupils get to know the older pupils so that they feel more at home in the House? Is the hierarchal system positive or negative, does it help or inhibit pupils?
The choice of House is critical because it is ‘Home’ on campus. It should be a place that you can retreat to from the busyness of a ‘full-on’ daily routine. There are usually between 10 and 14 children per year group, and this model is SO effective when it works. One of our sons was feeling overwhelmed with Chemistry prep and called us at home, his House master walked in when he was ‘stressing out’ to us about it! The House master told him to go and see one of the older boys who was brilliant at Chemistry and to go through it with him, it turned into a really positive experience because he understood it, and he learned how to ask for help from his elders. A good House makes a Big School feel small and manageable. Children learn a great deal more from each other than we think and it equips them to engage effectively with the big wide world beyond school.
The schools which have ‘Year Group’ Houses are very persuasive about their model, they say it offers a much greater number of potential friends who are all facing the same challenges together, as yet I have little experience of that system but suspect it does have its benefits.
2. Mobile Phones
Mobile phones are boring but important. As a form of communication with home they require only limited usage. Restricted access seems to work because no one wants to lose their phone so they to stick to the rules. Where pupils can have constant access to their mobiles, it is likely that the discipline is pretty laid back! It is not uncommon to find houses at the same school that have different policies about mobile usage. Be under no illusions, every parental block can be broken in a nano second and hours and hours are squandered on line checking the sports results, uploading nonsense, sending daft messages or viewing x rated rubbish! So beware if staff are not really on top of it, they may not be on top of other matters either.
3. What happens at weekends?
Do the staff disappear off campus and leave a skeleton team in charge of a group of high spirited youths? Do local parents arrive and exercise undue influence or take their children away for 24 hours indulgence at home, leaving the school a ghost town for those from far away? Children need exciting weekends, otherwise they make their ‘own’ excitement!
4. Extra curricular opportunities and sports
One teacher told us that the facilities are not important, what matters most is the access to opportunities. I ask pupils what they get up to, and what teams they are on, do they play an instrument or take part in school productions? Usually their answers are filled with natural enthusiasm about their passions. You catch a glimpse of what they really care about, it enabled us to work out if our children would enjoy opportunities to develop their passions.
5. Relationships with other children
Do children have friends outside the House and in other year groups? Are there cliques of children from local ‘feeder schools? One registrar told us that a well-known senior school nearby had taken 30 children from the same prep school. This had an awful impact on a particular school year. Do other children come from around the Globe or around the County? I want to know whether it is a cohesive campus, and whether everyone feels integrated into the life of the school? How far away do they come from? The response will give you a clearer sense of whether most children are from primarily urban backgrounds that makes for a more worldly and socially demanding school experience. When children find friends they grow in character and confidence.
This might all sound like the efforts of a madly controlling mother but choosing the right school requires discernment, it grows into a family relationship that lasts for many years. Siblings may have a shared history of their school experience that is a bond they can enjoy in later life. There is no mention here about grades or universities. Of course all of that information is important, but the search for the right school is about keying into the authentic ‘experience’ in so far as you can and working out if your child will be able to enjoy it. We all know our children and have a sense of what they need to progress, so this process is about ensuring that it is really on offer at the prospective school.
Registrars, by definition will have an eye on the business of the school; their primary responsibility is to keep the lifeblood of the school flowing! One discouraged me from looking at more than a couple because it creates chains like property chains in the housing market and inhibits parents making decisions which in turn, hampers their lists! True, there is a danger that you can get option fatigue, and struggle to come to a final decision, but knowing your child is in a place where you can see their confidence building and their potential being realised is worth every effort. Don’t be pressured!
No one would commit to a buying a home without searching the market and having a survey to understand if it will work as a home. The cost of independent education is a similar investment. It is a home away from home, a ‘world within a world’ so it must be worth making sure that we understand the school.
“The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.” Jean Piaget