Education: How to choose a prep school

    prep school

    Does finding the right school seem like the impossible dream? You just have to know what to look for, says William Brooks, head of Brambletye

    Finding the right prep school for your child is one of the most important decisions you will make, and there are numerous factors to consider, including your child’s disposition and interests, and the type of education you want them to experience.  Here are the five best ways to help you make that all-important decision:

     1.  Be clear about what you are looking for
    Prep schools’ offerings vary enormously and it’s important to establish what will suit your child and your family. Will your child always be a day pupil or do you think they might wish to board, as they grow older? Are you a London parent who is looking for a weekly boarding option? Is the school located close enough for you to easily attend matches, concerts, plays, sports days and other important occasions? By answering these questions, you should be able create a shortlist of schools to visit. Visiting too many schools can be disorientating and unproductive – a shortlist of around three to five would
    be just about right.

    2. Be prepared to change your mind
    Having taken the advice to know what you’re looking for, you now have a clear idea about your ideal prep school. But then you fall in love with a school, only to discover there’s Saturday school – when you can imagine nothing worse. It’s always worth airing your concerns with the school and listening to their reasons, and do ask to speak to other parents for their views. Often the thing that you thought insurmountable becomes less important once you become part of the school. While you thought weekends were sacred family time, you discover how rewarding it is watching your child playing in a team and interacting with their friends. Firm family friendships are often cultivated at prep school through the social events planned for parents. With frequent exeats too, you may discover you have the best of both worlds.

    3. Be inquisitive
    The registrar, the headmaster, staff, children and parents are all great sources of information and are usually very happy to talk expansively about their school. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions on your visit. When you are touring the school, look at the displays in the classroom, see how staff and children interact with each other and how they react to the headmaster or headmistress. Does the head know something about every child, not just their name? How does the head interact with other staff members? A happy and united team means a better education will be delivered to your child, and the whole school will beam with a positive spirit. Try to establish what the academic, sporting and pastoral ethos of the school is. Discover where the school’s centres of excellence are. Make sure your questions are fully answered and that the answer truly reflects your query. If, for example, you ask how many boarders there are, check that answer refers to the type of boarding which you are interested in and that you are given the number of boarders in the same year group as your child. When you are told about scholarships, find out the type of scholarship and to which senior schools.

    4. Be happy with pastoral provision
    In an age when there are so many concerns about the mental health of children, there is nothing more important than ensuring that children are happy.  Check there’s a healthy balance of classroom time and downtime. Do the children play sport every day and are there opportunities to flourish in areas that are non-academic? How does the school deal with unkindness and how does it reward good behaviour, effort and success? If possible, try to visit the school during breaktime so you can see the children at play. Are they carefree and happy, polite and engaged? Can you see the potential for special memories to be created for your child at the school?

    5. Be guided by your instincts
    You’ve asked all the questions you can, you’ve heard other parents’ views and you now have to make a decision. It can be incredibly tough to choose when you have ticks and crosses for and against each school you’ve seen. Think back to your visits and there is a good chance that when you walked into one school it just felt right. It might be hard to put a finger on why, but don’t ignore that gut feeling. It’s likely you’ve almost certainly found the right school for you.

    Important questions you might want to ask on open days…

    • What are the school’s strengths?

    • Which senior schools do children go on to?

    • What qualities does a child leaving this school possess?

    • Will the size of the school change?

    • What are the plans and challenges for the school over the next five years?

    Want more? Our resident dad columnist Jamie Day shares his feelings as his daughter starts school