Parental choice is a great slogan but how do you put it into practice as you pick a school for
your child? ANNABELLE WHITESTONE reports VVHERE TO SEND your child to school; the most crucial decision you will ever have to make on their behalf.
Research has shown that education between the ages of five and seven can affect a child's desire to learn and his or her ability to interact with others as well as providing them with the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. However, tests taken by state school children aged seven and 11 have shown that many of them are falling below average.
So how do you choose?
Parents now have even greater choice as to where they educate their children. They are not restricted to sending them to the nearest school and many schools are having to offer a number of incentives to attract potential pupils. So when it comes to making this decision parents should make sure that they use all the resources available to them.
They should start by looking at the school prospectuses and reports published by government inspectors through Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) as well as the school's own annual governors' reports. (From March 1997 the government plans to publish a league of primary test results for 7 11 year olds in England). However, there is no substitute for your own first hand experience. It is therefore essential to attend the school's open day, if they have one, or if possible to visit the school during term time.
For schools, an Open day is therefore the chance to wow a prospective parent. A spokesman for Thornton College in Milton Keynes explains that their school offers "two types of Open Days. One for existing parents and one for prospective ones. Parents there can meet the full staff and see samples of the student's current work."
INCREASED parental choice has meant that many schools are now competing for students.
Thornton College's spokesman adds that although "you would think that it would be easier to attract parents since many independent schools have closed down, there are now less independent schools than there were 20 years ago. However, parents are becoming more selective. They take the academic standards into consideration as well as the ethos of the school, its atmosphere and maybe a friendly welcome from the head teacher at the Open Day." He says that "each school is now vying, in a friendly way, for a static market which in some cases is going down."
Open days differ from school to school. For example, New Hall School in Chelmsford, ensures that their Open Day gives parents a varied display of all that the school has to offer. Pupils perform in a short play or a modern dance routine to entertain the parents while they visit the school which also gives them an idea of the standards they can expect.
New Hall School advises prospective parents to plan their Open Days. Their marketing officer, Sarah Stevenson, says "parents should decide which subject teachers they wish to target and what questions they wish to ask them before they come to the Open day." The school itself has compiled a list of 40 questions that teachers might expect to be asked by prospective parents. Combe Bank School in Seven Oaks has two Open days in October and July which offer parents the opportunity to join in on various activities. "We are very much a local school and from our experience parents would usually choose a school on the basis of its results, the location, its beauty and its ethos. We ourselves are a very caring school and we take children of all abilities."
Not all schools have Open days as such. Marymount International School in Kingston-upon-Thames is always open for prospective parents to come and look around. Similarly, St Benedicts School in Ealing does not coordinate a special day but prefers to send out prospectuses and arrange different days in October and November for parents to come and see the school.
ANOTHER CHOICE that parents have to make s whether or not to send their children to boarding school. Recently boarding schools have been affected by adverse publicity in the media, consequently many parents prefer to have their children at home rather than educated by "strangers". Parents also have to consider the financial viability of such a move.
Like many schools, Thornton College now offers parents certain incentives: "We would view each case on its own merit and if we felt that a child would benefit more from being here with us than the nearest school
then we would in special cases be prepared to negotiate the fee. We are looking for children who would be happy in
our environment and a happy child is one who would benefit from all we have to offer."
FR CHRISTOPHER,Headmaster of Worth
School in West Sussex, is keen to re-assure parents who are new to independent education: "we take a lot of care with our Open days to try to convey to our visitors that we are a friendly and welcoming school. We realise that a number of parents are not only new to boarding but also to the Independent sector... however a warm welcome soon dispels any anxieties!"
At Worth, the Open day programme includes a tour of the school given by a Worth student. This gives parents and their sons the opportunity to ask any questions they wish.
Although the Open day is carefully planned, Fr Christopher feels that it is an honest representation of the school. For example, there are no changes to the school timetable on the days classes
go on as normal and visiting families see it as it is every day. "I believe that parents and their sons gain a valuable insight into what boarding school life is like. They see the many advantages first hand and have the opportunity to meet other prospective parents and hear answers to common questions," says Fr Christopher.
St Columba's College and Preparatory School in Hertfordshire welcomes children from all denominations and offers parents two Open days in October. Prospective parents are invited with their children to have a personal tour of the school with a student so that they can see the school functioning during term time; they are also invited to attend a forum with the headmaster where they are encouraged to ask questions and discuss their expectations of the school.
ST VINCENT'S Infant School in Altrincham has recently been praised by Ofsted for pupils
whose attainment is "very well above the national expectation in all areas of learning."
The Headmistress, Zotia Kwiatkowska, attributes the secret of their success to the school's ethos, saying "everything we do is rooted in the fact that we are a Catholic school. This is the first point of everything we do." Parents who attend their Introductory Evening can meet the Parish Catechist who will deals with the children's First Holy Communion and to whom they can address goes Lions on their child's spiritual upbringing.
MOTHER WHOSE son
goes to Cardinal Vaughan School in Kensington says that "the philosophy of the school is the most important thing. When I was looking at schools I wanted to find a place that had good teaching but also one that gave my boy something extra. Nowadays children are exposed to so many things in the media that unless they have a firm moral education it is hard to bring them up right." She maintains that choosing a school which bases itself on a religious, Catholic ethos was very important to her.
The Book of Proverbs says "train up a child in the way that he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it". A stimulating environment is needed to help them achieve their maximum potential.
All schools try to provide them with this, however, the choice you have to make is which one will allow your child to thrive.
POINTS TO BEAR IN MINI)
YOUR FIRST impression of the school is likely to be formed by the people you meet. A friendly welcome by lively, enthusiastic and above all accessible staff is very important. You can take this opportunity to find out what their expectations of their pupils are, are they high enough? Realistic enough?
IF YOU VISIT a classroom where work is in progress you can observe whether the teacher is in control and capable of maintaining a good level of discipline; you can also see if the students look attentive and interested.
To find out the school's policy on discipline you might ask to see their handbook, if they have one. Alternatively, ask the pupils themselves how much freedom they are given. Is there a good balance between structured discipline and independence?
THE ETHOS of the school is very important, a good mixture of discipline and morality,in a friendly environment is crucial. How concerned are the staff with their pupils' individual needs? Is there a good raport between teacher and pupil? Do the pupils look neat and well-groomed?
The Facilities: WHILE INSPECTING the school facilities you should consider whether the school appears organised and well looked after. Check if the school has a library or sections in the classrooms used as reading areas. They should have a good selection of books and if it is a day school, you should ask if the children are allowed to take the books home with them to read with their parents.
Concentrate on the areas in which your child is interested. For example, if their interest lies in sport, see if they have good sports facilities. Do they have a good selection of individual as well as team sports? How much emphasis is placed on competitive sport?
For children interested in music, parents should inquire if they are given the opportunity to learn a variety of instruments. Can they take part in choral activities? Does the school organise concerts or musicals?
If your child is artistic, inspect the art facilities to check that they are varied. Do they have the equipment to provide pottery lessons, painting, printing and drawing? Are trips to galleries and museums organised?
Ask if they have a good selection of extra curricular societies for activities like drama, debating, cookery, chess, dance, etc.
Community: ALSO SEE IF the children are encouraged to become involved in community activities and if the school has strong community links. Are they given projects to carry out with local youth groups?
SCIENCE Is becoming increasingly important, so well-equiped labs are essential. Children should also have access to computers, see if are they used in subject areas such as English and Science and check up to what level children are taught to use them.
THE LOCATION of the school also plays a very important part in the decision; here parents are looking for different things. For some, the accessibility of the school is very important while for others it is a beautiful location. If a school is far away, check to see if it organises buses or other means of transport for the children.
You COULD CONSIDER asking the staff to show you the aspects of the school of which they are most proud. This will enable you to gauge the schools special strengths as they see them and to see if they are compatible with your expectations.
Careers: IF YOUR CHILD is planning to go into further education from that school, look at the careers facilities and ask to speak to the careers adviser. What sort of preparation does the school give pupils?
What percentage of pupils attain their first choice university placements?