James Dale-Adcock and Sarah Awwad of Cranleigh Preparatory School discuss how to make that all-important decision for your child’s future
The chances are, you’ll visit several schools before choosing ‘the one’ and at a time when cost dominates many of the decisions we make, it’s not surprising that when it comes to choosing the right prep school, one of the first questions parents ask themselves is, ‘Does the school represent good value for money?’ Of course, schools do need to make themselves competitive financially but it’s important to stack up the ‘cost’ of opportunity, not just in terms of facilities and provision on an academic and co-curricular level, but also in terms of the end-game in regards to senior school choice. It may seem a long way off, but it will help your decision-making to find out where the majority of a prep school’s pupils end up at senior school.
As you start to look for the right school, you will inherently be looking for a place that shares your core values; often you will want your children to have the experiences you yourself had as a child, so it’s not unusual to see parents return to the schools of their own childhoods. Do remember that, although a school may have a long-lasting ethos, it is not the same school it was when you went there as a child. A healthy staff turnover, with new staff bringing new ideas, is good for schools and the character of the place ultimately resides within its people. So remind yourselves you are choosing for your child and not from your own memories.
The decision over whether to board, and at what age, is individual to families and their lifestyle choices. But boarding trends are changing and there is now a range of options from weekly to flexible, which may even alter as a child moves through the school. Spend time really investigating the boarding ethos of a school, including how well it will prepare your child for boarding at senior school and how well integrated day pupils are.
Class sizes and the provision of extra academic support are also crucial. You will need to feel that your child will be supported where needed and given the best opportunities to succeed. Sixteen to eighteen is probably the ideal class size at prep school. Any lower may result in a poor gender dynamic and any higher reduces the dedicated time a teacher can spend with a pupil. Do also ask about the under layer of support schools may offer in terms of teaching assistants or small group assistance.
Different prep schools’ approach to academics will also vary, some will ensure prep is completed within the working day, enabling children to relax during family time, and others set prep for completion at home. Each approach will suit different families but do ask about the school’s view and whether it changes as the child moves through the school.
Most parents will want a school that will produce a ‘well-rounded’ individual who has been provided with as many opportunities as possible to shine. Many schools will declare a wide breadth of co-curricular opportunities, but do dig a bit deeper. Does it truly provide ‘sport for all’, and what is its philosophy if not? The difference in quality and depth of coaching can vary markedly.
You may feel encouraged by schools with favourable sibling policies; it can certainly make practical sense to send all of your children to the same school. The choice becomes even more appealing if that prep school has excellent links with senior schools; it may be reassuring to send your children somewhere that will see them through compulsory education. Question the policies and make sure you are well aware of the admissions journey so there are no surprises later; and do remember that not all your children are the same. If they really would thrive as individuals at different schools then that may also be something to consider.
At the end of the day, the question it all boils down to is: ‘Will my child be happy here?’ Only you can answer that and the choice will often come down to the way a school makes you and your child feel when you visit. It’s helpful if a school is prepared to spend time advising you, especially if it offers taster days. Overall, prep schools that are caring and nurturing, that have strong leadership with profound core values, that put the child at the centre of everything, cannot go far wrong.