As the headmaster of a small preparatory school, I aim, as with other heads, to persuade you to visit my school by packaging information about it in an attractive way. Today, schools quite understandably lay more emphasis than ever before on marketing. The material about one school can be accurate but in another the prospectus can give a glossy picture of a school with low standards and so a personal visit, preferably with your son/daughter, is essential.
This visit is the most important part of your selection process because it allows you to make decisions about the school first–hand. However, it will only be really effective if you go armed with things to look for and questions to ask. Sometimes you will be shown around the school by the head and at others a senior pupil will be your guide but for all visits you should expect at least to meet the head and to have some time with him/her so there will be an opportunity to raise points.
Before the visit, you will know what has attracted you to that particular school. It may have been recommended by your child's current head or a friend, you may have gone there yourself, you may know of its reputation or you may just have been attracted to it by its prospectus. Use the visit to ensure that your impressions gained from wherever are well–founded and look beneath the facade of the school to evaluate its true worth. Pre-visit, have a look at the school’s own website and read any reports – Ofsted, Care Standards, Nursery – which are all in the public domain.
As you approach the school, you will get an initial impression of whether externally it lives up to the picture you had formed of it. You will also be able to see whether the grounds and the buildings are well–cared for. Clearly some schools have a massive maintenance task – and so some evidence of maintenance needed should not necessarily put you off – but the school should look tidy and organised. You may also meet some pupils and staff on the way to reception. Do they speak to you, are they polite, do they look smart and purposeful? Since these are unlikely to be hand–picked, the impression you gain from them is likely to reflect the school as it actually is. The headteacher of a prep school is likely to come into contact more with your child and be more influential in the way the school develops than that of a secondary school, mainly because of size.
However, in both cases, it is important that you feel comfortable with both the atmosphere of a school and also with the head because the education of your child is very much a co–operative venture between the school and yourself. Atmosphere can hit you very quickly, sometimes as soon as you go through the front door, and it is a good indicator of the worth of the school. Do you feel really welcome, do you feel "at home" in the school, is it a place that you would be comfortable visiting during your child's education there? It is also useful to know how long the head has been in post, and how long he/she expects to stay, mainly so that you can ensure that the school has continuity in its higher management. It is also helpful to find out what initiatives the head has introduced and what the general plans are for the future. A good indication of the popularity of a school is whether it is filling its available places and whether pupil numbers have been increasing, or decreasing, over the previous few years and you should find this out.
Either in discussion with the head or during the walk-round, you will need to find out as much as you can of the pastoral, extra–mural and academic strengths of the school. You will want evidence that what is being said is actually the case, either from what you can see for yourself or by what is said by the pupils. Clearly, there are different areas to consider depending on whether you are looking for a boarding or day place but below are some suggestions:
Much depends on what academic tradition you are looking for and how bright your child is. You must be wary both of putting your child into too academic a school and also into one which will not stretch him/her. Most secondary schools have different streams or classes for varying abilities though preparatory schools will not necessarily. In all cases, look at, and understand, the examination results or, in the case of a prep school, the senior schools which it feeds. League tables, although sometimes misleading, can be helpful when comparing schools provided that you are aware of the different circumstances and entrance requirements of each. At prep school level, it is likely that most pupils will get into their first–choice school, so look at the school's scholarship record and also which schools are entered. In secondary schools, what is the average number of GCSEs grades A–C gained by each pupil? Is there any "weeding–out" of "weak" candidates prior to the examination? How many pupils go onto "AS/A" levels and then onto a degree and in what subjects and to what universities? If your child is not strong academically, or indeed has special needs, what extra help is given to pupils with difficulties in certain subjects? What is the homework/prep requirement? Of secondary importance, because it is performance which matters most, look at the staffing list, check qualifications and decide whether the teaching facilities are good. Are classrooms bright, organised and looked after? Ask to see children's books, preferably of the age–group, or near to the age–group, of your child (if appropriate) – don't just rely on display work which may not be a truly representative cross–section of work done. Look at maximum class sizes (20 tends to be a good average) and familiarise yourself with the assessment and reporting system.
Most schools have a wide range of sports, music and extra–mural activities. Get an impression of what your child could take part in, at what age and how often. Is there an age/numbers bar? In sport, what happens if your child does not get into the first team for his/her age–group? If your child is very strong at sport, what county/national representation has the school had? Ask how often your child will use the stage/ have the opportunity to perform in plays/concerts. When will he/she use the gymnasium and swimming pool? Extra–mural and sports' programmes, and facilities to go with them, can look very impressive but it is important to ensure that your child will be able to take advantage of them regularly and that they are not restricted in any way.
This is more important on the boarding side although it obviously affects day pupils as well. In both cases, satisfy yourself that the medical and dietary provision is good and that procedures and channels exist for your child to use if he/she has worries, either academic or social. For boarding, look at the dormitories, common–rooms and ablution areas. Untidy dormitories and boarding areas are not evidence of homeliness. Much improvement has been made to dormitory provision in many schools fairly recently – curtains, carpets, smaller dorms, matching duvets and so on – and so expect high standards. Ask about the boarders' daily routine, taking particular note of what is on offer during the evenings and weekends. There should be a balance between giving pupils free time yet ensuring that they are sufficiently occupied/guided and not totally restricted to school grounds from one exeat (weekend at home) to another. For older pupils, look at how the school meets the challenge of preparing its 6th Formers for leaving school yet at the same time maintaining control and monitoring behaviour. In all schools, what is the policy on discipline and how is it enforced?
Your visit to the school you eventually choose is the start of a dialogue between you and that school, since the educational process is very much a partnership between the two of you. Ensure that, during your visit, you ask how your child's progress is monitored and reported to you – you should expect progress reports every term, whether in the form of written reports or parents' evenings. Also find out how easy it will be for you to see the head or members of staff should the need arise.
Ensure that you know what is, and is not, covered by the termly fee. It can be a bit of a shock to have a myriad of extras added on to the fee account when you were not expecting them. Ask about the arrangements for pocket money. Check the insurance policies, both for pupil accident and fees protection.
Keith Boulter is Headmaster of Barnardiston Hall Preparatory School, near Haverhill in Suffolk. It is a co–educational preparatory school of about 260 pupils, offering day and boarding (including weekly and flexi–boarding) – you can see more at www.barnardiston–hall.co.uk.