The whole business of choosing the right school can seem daunting to any parent; there are hundreds of boarding schools to choose from and sifting through them all would be an impossible task. As parents we can’t afford to get this wrong - so a number of simple steps should help.
The first consideration is age. If your son is under 13 then a Prep School is what you need. For girls the same can apply but quite a number of schools finish at 11. If you live in London you will have heard all the horror stories about getting your name onto lists years in advance and having to sit endless tests and interviews; and these are not just for the children! Boarding is different; waiting lists at most schools are considerably shorter and many fine boarding preps will have spaces even for next September. For senior boarding schools the story is rather different. The big names do get booked up in advance but the list of over-subscribed schools is not as lengthy as many might imagine. In addition many schools have abandoned the old “get the name down at birth” system in favour of a much more streamlined modern process that generally has a lead-in time of about two to three years. If you have not got yourself organised in advance don’t panic; many excellent boarding schools will have places for next September and virtually all will have space for a superstar.
Your second consideration should be the type of boarding. Gone are the days of dropping your child off in September and seeing him/her again in December but there is considerable variation in what is on offer. Many preps will offer flexi or weekly boarding. This can be the best of both worlds; dipping in and out as you and your child like or perhaps dropping them off on Monday morning and seeing them again on Friday evening. Sensible schools will not over-burden the kids with homework and weekends can truly be “quality time”. The “full-boarding” experience is quite different. The children will remain at school for two to three weeks at a time but will then be home for “exeat weekends”. This can be wonderful for parents who live abroad or who simply lead very busy lives. Also the schools go out of their way to make sure that the weekend experience is rather better than most of us parents can provide. The kids love being at school and we are encouraged to pitch up for matches, teas, poetry competitions, plays, swimming galas and so on. At senior school there tends to be a simple divide between full and weekly boarding, though some of the “full” are not quite so “full" and a number do empty out at lunchtime or after matches on a Saturday.
Your next consideration is geography. Most parents prefer to be within striking distance of their child’s school so a travel time of about an hour and a half is a good rule of thumb. Some will go much further in order to make sure that certain talents are going to be nurtured or to gain a place at one of the highest profile schools. There are very few “national” boarding schools today but different schools do have different catchments. The Tonbridge catchment for instance will be much smaller in terms of area than that of Oundle but the reasons for this are obvious; Tonbridge has a huge wealthy local population whereas Oundle is some distance from the immediate impact of London.
At this point being able to remember some basics of economic geography, spheres of influence and catchment areas will be helpful but a map of schools should be forming in your mind or indeed on paper.
Now comes the tricky part. Your map includes x number of schools and how do you choose the “best”? If you listen to friends and colleagues you will quickly realise there are lots of “bests” out there. Of course you will listen to the advice of trusted friends; you will also trawl through the very glossy up-beat websites and you will send for the even glossier brochures. Boarding schools have invested heavily in marketing over recent years and so they should. They are selling a very expensive product and every parent of two children that walks through the door is worth a potential £300,000 for senior school education alone.
If your child is already at a Prep School you have a built-in advantage. Part of the role of Prep Head is to act as your educational advisor. He or she will help you draw up a short-list of schools that would suit your child. I would suggest that you take this advice very seriously. He or she will take into account the character, academic ability and general talent and interests of your child. Without access to this sort of advice my best suggestion is that you get in touch with a reputable education consultant. They will certainly charge a fee but when you consider the level of financial and emotional investment, I would suggest this is money well spent.
When you have your list then it is time to plan your visits. At this stage I should point you to my previous article on Open Days http://fairfield-education.com/fairfield-blog/ A private visit works in much the same way as a formal open day and my comments apply equally to both.
An immediate practical step would be to visit The Independent Schools Show in Battersea Park on 8 and 9 November. Here you will find most of the big boarding schools under one roof with staff on hand to help advise you. You may enter the exhibition centre knowing very little about English Public Schools but I guarantee that you will be hugely better informed after a few hours of talking and listening. Tickets are free to those registering in advance on http://www.schoolsshow.co.uk/index.php/london-tickets Even if your selected schools are not in attendance some very impressive ones will be and the Heads, Registrars, Housemasters and Admissions teams will be very happy to talk to you.
I will be at the show as I am hosting a discussion on US v UK universities in the Education Theatre on the Sunday http://www.schoolsshow.co.uk/index.php/the-education-theatre-programme My panel includes the former Director for Admissions at Yale and the current Head of Student Recruitment at Oxford.
Rory I Reilly