Sunday, 22 September 2019

See beyond the manicured lawns, chemistry lab and lavish lunches

See beyond the manicured lawns, chemistry lab and lavish lunches

WHEN I was headmaster of The Oratory Prep School, parents would often ask me for advice on what to look for on an independent senior school open morning.

Eventually I wrote down some thoughts to help my parents see beyond the explosions in the chemistry laboratory, the manicured lawns and the lavish lunch.

Here are my — very personal and subjective — tips for parents for senior school open days and showrounds:

1. Ask questions

You wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive, so with schools do the next best thing: ask questions.

If there are particular things, departments, key members of staff or places you’d like to see, ask to see them.

If you’re not allowed to see certain bits of the school, wonder why. Don’t be rude and “pushy” but don’t be shy either — it’s a big investment and rather an important one.

2. Take note of — but don’t be blinded by — facilities

In inspector-speak, ask yourself, “impressive though it is, how will this new music school, art department, sports hall affect the outcomes for my child?”

Some of the most inspiring teaching takes place in the most inauspicious surroundings. That said, facilities are important, of course.

What are the displays like? Lots of interesting pupils’ work is a good sign, as are tidy and well-maintained information boards for sports and activities.

You can tell a lot about a school from its development priorities. As well as what there is, ask about plans for the future.

3. Take note of the school’s art, even if your child isn’t “arty”

Other people have their own “pet” departments but, while not an artist myself, I always make sure I see a school’s art department. I think you can tell a lot about a school’s ethos — its creativity in the broadest sense of the word — from its art. Is it vibrant and exciting? Is there a variety of method and medium? What’s the “vibe” of the department?

4. Talk to pupils, both during your tour and around the school

Ask them what they like and what they don’t like. What’s the food like? Are the teachers kind and fair? If a teacher is described as setting too much work that may be a positive sign. What are the pupils like? Are they open, cheerful and friendly or sullen and “too cool for school”? Do they say hello as you pass them?

5.Talk to staff

They will be teaching your children so what could be more important? How engaging are they? Are they clearly passionate about their subject? Can you hardly get away because they want to tell you about what they do (a good sign)? Will they inspire my son or daughter with a love for their subject and for learning itself?

6. Talk to boarding staff

If your child is going to be a boarder, make sure you spend some quality time with his or her housemaster or housemistress, or if you are allocated to a “random” house, talk to the HsM anyway.

Do they seem to have excellent pastoral skills? Will they take the time and make the considerable effort to understand, cajole, encourage, admonish, praise, stick up for your son or daughter?

Ask the pupils in their house how much they see of them, or do the prefects run the show?

7. Listen to and, if possible, talk to the head

Needless to say, a school’s leader is very important to its success and direction.

8. Like any good teacher, observe

Many of the most telling things in schools happen out of the corner of one’s eye, which is why the best teachers seem to have eyes in the back of their heads.

How do the pupils interact with each other? Peep through the window of the classroom door that’s closed when you look round. How do the staff and pupils interact with each other? Are relationships warm yet respectful?

9. Don’t be embarrassed about asking yourselves, “do we feel comfortable here?”

Are the other parents — albeit prospective ones — our sort of people? You may well be spending a lot of time at the school and you need to feel relaxed there.

10. While not the most important criterion, don’t discount the importance of logistics

If you’re happy driving two hours on a Sunday night in winter to take child A back to school while your spouse does the same to another school for child B, then fine.

If they’re the right schools for your children it will be worth it. But if it’s a close call, logistics have to be a factor.

11. Ask the school about its results and look at them on the website

If a school doesn’t publish its results on its website, why not?

Don’t necessarily be put off if a school doesn’t submit its results for league tables — this is often for laudable and noble reasons — but they should let you see them.

More importantly though, ask for the value added statistics. Mention things like ALIS (value added performance based on
A-level results) and MIDYIS (based on GCSE results).

Where do the pupils go? A few Oxbridge entrants is desirable but not the be-all and end-all.

There should be a good number of Russell Group universities represented, but also look for highly selective institutions such as the top art colleges and drama schools.

12. Read the Independent Schools Inspectorate report

This should be on the school website, or can easily be searched for and downloaded from the ISI website.

Don’t be victim to grade inflation and expect perfection: in ISI terms “good” is good and is hard to achieve. Excellent is just that.

13. Don’t ignore the heart

In fact, pay great attention to it. You will probably know within the first five minutes if it’s not the right school for your son or daughter. If you think it might be, then apply numbers 1-12 above.

Good luck!

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