How to choose the best school for your child

Finding the right school can be a nerve-racking process but the heads of four leading schools have plenty of wise advice. Elizabeth Ivens reports

Pupils at Alleyn’s School in south-east London
Pupils at Alleyn’s School in south-east London

How early should you start looking at schools?

We have all heard apocryphal stories about parents who put their children’s names down for a school before they are even born – but what do experienced heads think? Jane Lunnon, head of Alleyn’s, a co-ed day school for four to 18-year-olds in south-east London, advises parents to be aware that some admissions processes can take up to 18 months. She recommends starting to think about a 4+ place when your child is a toddler and for a secondary place by the end of year 4.

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Chris Searson, headmaster of Beaudesert Park School, a Gloucestershire pre-prep and prep, warns that “timings vary considerably for prep schools” so organisation is key. “It is good to be lined up in your mind well in advance,” he says. “But sometimes circumstances mean that you can only make decisions in the term before your child starts. Find out if places are oversubscribed so you don’t miss out.”

How should you choose your shortlist?

Heads advise parents to draw up a realistic shortlist of schools, based on advice from your child’s current school. Jane Lunnon says that this is vital in a competitive market like London. “The best way to go about applying is to have a really strong, open and honest conversation with your child’s current school and to come out of that with three or four really strong contenders,” she says.

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Is it important to visit schools in person?

At all-boys Stamford School in Lincolnshire, headmaster Nick Gallop says that a visit is “a vital component of the selection process, if only to ensure that expectations are rooted in reality”. Helen Harrison, head of Fettes College, a co-ed boarding and day school in Edinburgh, points out that while the pandemic has shown that it’s possible to choose a school without visiting it in person, it isn’t necessarily ideal. “A 360-degree video film can never replace an actual visit filled with the buzz of happy students and inspiring class visits, but it has its place,” she says.

Is it best to visit on an open day or a normal working day?

Visiting on an official open day gives parents the opportunity to see a school on its best behaviour but, for a more unscripted look, ask for a private visit during a normal school day. Beaudesert Park’s Chris Searson believes that a good open day enables visitors to get an idea of the “normal life of the school” but personal visits have the bonus of “allowing you time to absorb and ask questions in your own time”. Meanwhile at Fettes College Helen Harrison says that open days and private visits can give “different insights” and recommends trying to do both.

Should you take your child with you?

Heads warn that children can be inspired and reassured by select school visits but taking them to multiple schools – or too early in the process – is best avoided. “For most children, visiting more than three schools can turn the transition process into a chore and can confuse and complicate,” says Stamford’s Nick Gallop.

What if a child is nervous or reluctant about a school move?

For many parents, an anxious or reluctant child can make the process tougher. “Some children can be reluctant to go to any school – or be nervous about a particular school after a school visit,” says Jane Lunnon of Alleyn’s. She advises managing conversations to involve your child in the process. Also, to help tease out any anxieties, take them for a second visit if you still think the school is the right one.

Rugby at Fettes College in Edinburgh

Rugby at Fettes College in Edinburgh

What are the key things to take into consideration when choosing a school?

Practical considerations such as boarding or day, co-ed or single sex, location, facilities and the academic curriculum should help you draw up a list of potential schools before you dig deeper, says Helen Harrison at Fettes College. “It is a momentous decision and one that warrants lots of research and planning; think of it as a project.” Stamford’s Nick Gallop advises parents to look closely at “the extent to which a day and boarding school is geared to its boarding community”, with students in the minority required to just “fit in”. At Alleyn’s, Jane Lunnon says you should also consider a school’s values and whether the school is fun. “The synergy of values is so important and that’s why understanding a school’s ethos is crucial.” She recommends that parents ask themselves: “‘Is it fun?’ ‘Are they laughing?’ Education is about joy and, if it doesn’t seem to be, perhaps that should be something you need to consider.”

Is it important to meet the head?

Most parents expect to meet the head but this can be harder at large and over-subscribed schools. Chris Searson at Beaudesert Park says that it’s a good idea to meet the head if possible but, if it isn’t, parents should “ask those who know them what they are like”. Nick Gallop of Stamford agrees. “If the head is unavailable, it might be worth asking how often they meet with students,” he says.

How do you decide between schools?

This is where the all-important “gut instinct” comes in, say heads. “Listen to your gut,” advises Jane Lunnon. “Ask yourself: ‘What made my spirits soar most of all?’ Be really honest with yourself. Think to yourself: ‘Where was my child the happiest? Where did I see their eyes light up?’” Chris Searson takes a similar view. “If you follow what your gut is telling you then you won’t go far wrong,” he says.

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