With our eldest child nearing the end of her prep school years, my wife and I have found ourselves with the shoe on the other foot in recent months as we have been visiting senior schools as prospective parents. We have tried our best to do so as parents only. Sadly, for us, we keep being spotted as the Headmaster and Registrar at Old Buckenham Hall!
Nonetheless, it has been an educational experience in many ways as despite both having taught in senior schools for many years – and having been involved in prep schooling for eight years – our insider knowledge of what makes a good school has completely gone by the wayside. Our intended objective approach has been taken over by the school offering the experience that has won our hearts and minds; the school where we can see our child being happy and where we trust the words of the leadership.
This poses a series of questions for me. For example, when parents are choosing a prep or senior school, how are decisions made when 90% of what schools do – at least if you follow the jargon on a website – appears to be the same? I would challenge anyone to name me a school that doesn't state they have happy children, strong pastoral care, and high academic standards. There are many other questions that could be asked.
If 90% of what schools propose is the same, what is the other 10%? I consider this the magic 10% and for me it is the bit that parents should really focus on. In this 10% can be found the culture of the school. Culture is important because this includes where the priorities lie for your child; where the focus on character development is; how important is boarding (or not); how strong a leader is the Head; how well governed is the school; how much focus is there on compliance; where does academia stand in relation to co-curricular opportunity (they are not mutually exclusive). Together these and other related elements create the magic that you will fall in love with, or not. It is the magic 10% on which your decisions should be made.
When visiting a school, parents will have questions and I would always encourage them to consider key ones in advance and take a list. Try to meet children at the school and observe how they relate to each other and teachers and support staff. Spend as much time as you can with key staff – the Head is best, although this is often more difficult when visiting a senior school. Listen to what they have to say about the school, but also how they say it. As parents you need to trust and preferably like the Head of your chosen school, especially at prep level. You will come into frequent contact with them and if it is a standalone prep with no senior school links, you will be reliant on them for information and advice to help you navigate your child's future educational pathway.
This is critically important for you because there is no getting away from the fact that you are entrusting your most precious person to a Head's care. You are also going to spend an awful lot of cash, and you will not see every element of your child's day – and you should not always believe everything they tell you when they get home! The last thing you will want to do is spend the next five to ten years worrying that you made the wrong choice or have not made the best investment in your child's future. Along that road lies anxiety and conflict.
Your decision is just as important for the school however. Heads are generally very good at responding to a parental concern and always seek to improve their schools. Although questions and criticism can be wearing when we are already doing our best, a good Head understands the concerns of parents and wants the best for your children. They will listen, reflect, and respond. Often you will like the answer, sometimes you will not. You and they need to trust that such conversations are held in good faith. A Head has no desire to deal with frequent but minor or immaterial email complaints as it stops them doing their job effectively. That kind of relationship is counter-productive for both parents and school. Therefore, the key word is partnership.
When visiting schools and considering the magic 10%, you are really doing so to choose a suitable partner to assist in your child's educational journey. If you find the right partner it will be a relatively smooth pathway and the potholes that you will encounter along the way will be smoothed over by a sense of mutual purpose, clear communication, and the common aim of reaching a specific destination that is agreed at the point of entry.
So how do you decide which school really has the magic 10%? Follow your heart.