Within the UK we are blessed with a wonderfully good selection of private, independent boarding schools and day schools, each of which has its own special ethos or style.
But which one is right for your child?
Perhaps you may prefer one that offers boarding, whereas other parents may be seeking a day school for their son or daughter.
And what about the co-educational vs single-sex argument, and whether to choose a selective or non-selective school?
It quickly becomes apparent that this wide and varied choice of schools has numerous advantages, but it also creates one particular challenge too; how to whittle down the possible schools into a final few to make the Selection List.
One has only to type into Google a phrase such as “what are the best schools in the UK?” and the first few search pages are full of lists, from magazines, newspapers, and various educational organisations.
To tell you the truth, however, those lists won’t really help you that much.
They’re rather like those lists that the Sunday magazine supplements regularly produce, eg 50 of the best rural places to live in Britain.
More click-bait than useful, they’re good as far as they go, but when factoring in location, style and fees, along with our own personal preferences, it’s easy to see why selecting the ‘top’ or ‘best’ school for your child can be considerably more difficult than picking the winner for the Grand National.
You may have already contacted a few schools and have received a wonderfully well produced prospectus setting out the benefits of having your son or daughter study there.
Each school would, undoubtedly, offer your child a very good education, but will it be the right school for them?
It’s often difficult to make a final choice and so with this in mind we’ve selected ten questions for you that we feel you’ll find helpful in whittling down your long list of “might-be-the-one’s” down to just a couple, or if you’re lucky, “the one”.
So here are 9 useful questions about boarding schools to help you with your deliberations.
Rules of the game
For the purposes of this exercise we’ve assumed that you’ve decided to choose a boarding, or flexi-boarding school rather than a day school.
We’ll look at some of the questions that may help you decide the boarding or not question in another post, along with those around single sex or co-education and selective vs non-selective.
We’ve also assumed your child is 7 or older, as that’s the age after which most prep schools or junior schools may offer boarding.
You may, of course, be intending to select a senior school for your child after their prep or junior school years and in that case these questions can also be used to help to round down your list of possible schools.
Whilst it’s useful and informative to visit each school on their open days, once you’ve narrowed down your selection, you would do well to visit on a normal school day too in order to gain a better feel as to how the school operates when in ‘work mode’.
And please, even if you’ve already got your heart set on your son or daughter attending one particular school, take the time to visit 2 or 3 others, so as to ensure you understand the benefits, or possible disadvantages, of your first preference.
After all, one would obtain 2 or 3 quotes if having work carried out on the home, so surely it’s appropriate to follow a similar method when selecting which school to invest your and your child’s, time into.
Boarding Schools Questions
1. “How frequently will leave outs or exeats occur and when would my daughter / son be free to leave and be expected back at school?”
As busy parents you need to determine how much travelling you want to do and whether you or your partner will be able to commit to the times the school closes and opens.
Remember also that many of the private schools in the UK have been in their present locations for hundreds of years, and so the pleasantly quiet traffic in the area when you attend a weekend open day may be quite different compared to that when every parent has arrived en-mass to collect their cherubs for a leave out.
On-site parking at many boarding schools can be very much a case of ‘first come, first served’ and so, when the timetable says ‘school closes at 12:00 pm’, be assured that those in the know will be arriving and parking up quite a bit earlier than that so as to bag a good space.
We also know of parents who were adamant that they didn’t want their child to board, but this meant that they had to spend 6 days a week travelling to and fro.
This time could, perhaps, have been better spent by your daughter or son doing their after-school prep or study instead, if they were able to board. This can also mean the difference between making collecting your child a pleasure, rather than a chore.
It’s also worth considering whether there is a railway station near to both your home and any proposed schools, since in their senior year(s) they may prefer to make their own way to and from school, in preparation for university life, perhaps.
In addition to leave-outs and exeats, remember also to ask about any special school-specific holidays or must-attend days, since parents will need to plan for attending these too.
2. “How long has the head of X house been in place and when might they be expected to be replaced?”
When visiting a boarding school it’s tempting to think that everything that you see in place on that day will continue unchanged for the duration of your child’s years there, including all the members of the teaching and pastoral care staff.
In many larger schools the head of a house may stay in that position for 5-15 years before relinquishing that position, either to their deputy or to a person from outside of the current staff roster.
Most will stay on at the school continuing to teach their syllabus subjects. If, however, your child has developed a strong bond with their head of house, you might not want that disturbed in their final exam year.
You could also ask whether the house matron may be leaving, as pupils will often develop a strong bond with her, and this too could upset them at exam time.
As an aside, it’s interesting to discover how many alumni of the school have returned to teach there, or to spend time as a graduate intern, which may provide an indication of how they feel about their time there as a pupil.
3. “How often might we be able to come up to see our child taking part in school events?”
Gone are the days when parents would send their children off to boarding school by train, with a trunk of clothing and accoutrements, never to see them for months at a time.
Nowadays boarding schools are much more interested in providing parents with ways to be involved with their children’s activities, whether that be watching a school or house music concert, attending a church recital, or watching one of the many regular sporting fixtures, at home or away at other schools.
Most of the information will be readily available on-line (behind suitably password-protected screens, naurally), however, only you can decide how often you will be able to attend these events.
If you do, therefore, want to follow along closely with your son’s or daughter’s activities then it’s important to ensure that any proposed school provides for such involvement in their scheduling.
4. If sport, music, art or drama is important to your child, “How would their timetable provide for additional practice time and how often would they be able to participate in school events?”
The UK’s private schools are well known for providing a wonderful selection of sporting facilities to enable new, up and coming talent to flourish.
They also benefit from the funds to secure the services of some highly qualified and capable sports coaches, who can make the best use of the wonderful facilities, and bring out the best in the students.
Unlike state schools, where every week there seems to be a news story highlighting the lack of time spent on sport, in independent schools all sporting activities are positively encouraged.
Depending upon the size of the school, there’s every possibility that your child will be able to try out for a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc team, along with general inter-school teams for those who want simply to enjoy a sport, rather than compete.
If your son or daughter has a favourite sport, then it’s important to check and confirm it’s one that is played at the school, since not all schools make provision for the same sporting events.
Many independent schools also offer sports and exercise opportunities not available elsewhere, such as linking up with local riding clubs, or they will often be able to put together a sports class for just a few students, often based upon the “up until then” hidden talents of their teachers.
If music is important to you and your child, you’ll be pleased to discover that most schools have ample opportunities for students to continue with their musical endeavours.
In stark contrast to the often limited range of peripatetic music teachers in state schools, most independent schools are able to keep highly talented musical teachers on their staff full-time, but it’s always good to check whether your child’s instrument is one which will fit readily into their existing music schedules.
5a. If a prep school – “What particular destination boarding schools do leavers go on to?”
Be careful of selecting a prep school purely upon nearness, or based solely upon what friends or family might suggest, especially if you have set your heart upon your child’s attending a specific senior school, one which prep school hasn’t sent a pupil up to in recent years.
It’s important, therefore, to identify whether the prep school a ‘feeder school’ to one or more particular senior schools, and if so, are any of those ones that will make your short-list?
A good prep school head will have an understanding of what different schools require, however, nothing beats recent admissions successes to sway the argument one way or another.
Remember also, that if you’d like your child to attend a private school that you or your partner attended previously, the educational landscape has changed dramatically in the last 20-30 years, so it’s important to assess your old school’s results and ethos, as it is now, without viewing it through the “rose tinted spectacles” of your own school memories.
5b. If a senior school “What particular destination universities do students go on to? “
All senior schools will be well-versed in assisting their senior students in preparing for university applications, it’s one of the most important criteria they are measured by.
If, however, you’re hoping for your child eventually to secure a place at Oxford, Cambridge, a Russell Group or a top American university, then it’s important to confirm the actual results the school has achieved, at that level.
6. “How many of the students go home at weekends outside of exeats or leave outs?”
Some boarding schools offer a flexi-boarding arrangement, or have a mix of day and boarding students.
It’s important, therefore, to confirm how many students are full-boarders, otherwise your child may find the change from a busy weekday environment to a quiet and more solitary weekend one, something they don’t enjoy.
7. What sanctions or discipline do you employ for such things as smoking, drinking, bullying or not completing prep, or extra work?
Whilst research shows that issues around discipline are less of a problem in private schools, it’s still something which does crop up from time to time so it’s important that you clarify how each school would deal with this.
For example; if pupils are allowed off-site at weekends what are the rules for their timely return to school and penalties for missing those cut-off times?
Also ask about the rules they have around such issues as internet or social media usage, smoking on/off site (for those in senior years), not completing prep or EW on time and failing to attend or being late for classes.
Even if you believe that your son or daughter wouldn’t become involved in any of the above mentioned issues, how would they feel if they became aware of others breaking the rules and not being disciplined fairly?
8. What are the boarding arrangements, how many to each rooms and do they dine in houses or all together?
Unlike most state maintained schools the vast majority of independent boarding schools have evolved over many decades (and in quite a few instances, expanded over hundreds of years).
Some public independent schools have expanded their facilities by acquiring buildings across villages or within corners of the town and, as a result, there may not be one ‘standard’ format of a boarding house that all students would expect to reside in.
This means that there are often different styles attached to the school’s various houses and so it’s important to find out more about what each house feels like to you.
Some may have an older, more rustic charm, whereas others may have a more modern feel, each with their own selection of facilities that might not be the same as in other houses.
It’s important, therefore, to ask about any inter-house differences, and to see inside some examples of each. Perhaps your child may prefer their own company, or alternatively, they may thrive on being with others more of the time.
Perhaps your child finds too many voices or a general background noise discomforting and if so then it’s important to ensure that any house selected offers a quieter format for them.
Allied to this question is the reminder to not let your decision be swayed by being shown any recently completed stunning new facilities, if in contrast, the boarding houses don’t feel like they’ve been updated in years.
9. Is there a networking group for parents who live in different locations?
Every boarding school will have a very full schedule in place to ensure that, from the moment your child first attends, they will be fully occupied.
Very soon they’ll learn the school’s particular ways, along with the names of all of the teachers and administrative and housekeeping staff, but where does that leave you?
Even though the school will keep you informed about your son’s or daughter’s progress, being boarding school parents can be a lonely existence, since you might only ever be at the school for a quick collection or drop-off.
That being so, most schools will provide parents with the contact details of other parents, or even set up social media groups for them, so it’s possible for parents to stay in touch and make arrangements to meet up away from the school itself.
Ask, therefore, how parents will be able to stay in touch with each other.
And the winning school is … ?
So you’ve visited some schools, and perhaps you were surprised by what you discovered.
Possibly one or more of your previous top list haven’t made the cut, but that’s ok, because now comes the time to decide which one you will submit an application to for a place.
Remember, however, before you make a final decision, to speak to your son or daughter to gain their opinion too.
In all of the busyness of the visits and viewings it’s easy to forget that their opinion counts too, especially since they’re the ones who will be living there for much of the next few years.
More than one parent has commented that “I’d set my heart on my daughter going to X, but when I visited Y I realized that it would be a better fit for her.”
Always let your child’s needs and priorities take centre-stage over yours when it comes to making a final selection.
We’d love to hear how you get on when viewing your proposed boarding schools, and if you’ve got any questions, or can’t decide between school X or school Y, please feel free get in touch, and I’m sure we can offer you a few suggestions that will help you to shape up your decision.