The first time you visit a potential new school for your child you may feel less at ease than you had imagined. After all, you have been to school before… The assembly hall, gym and classroom hold few secrets for most adults, even allowing for a bad memory or your school days not having been the best of your life. But parents often report feeling that they are being tested, that it is they who are under scrutiny. And this can make the process far from enjoyable and probably not as edifying as it might be.
With this in mind we have given some thought to the multitude of ways in which you might best gain experience of a school. Not all schools will feel comfortable with everything we suggest here but in our experience they can all understand what a parent is trying to ascertain and should be able to find ways for you to access the information you require. And if they don’t, you may have the answer you were looking for.
1/ Come back incognito. You don’t need to trespass, but looking at how children behave on their way to and from school is interesting. Do they greet passers by? How do they behave amongst themselves? Go into a cafe they frequent. How polite are they to the staff and other customers?
2/ Ask if you can come back and observe some lessons. This may sound intrusive, but one mother I heard of came yearly to her three children’s small prep school and spent a morning going through the books. Why not, she said? She was the equivalent of an important minority shareholder.
3/ See if there are other events you might be able to attend – a concert, a debating competition, a charity event etc. You may well have friends with children at the school. Tag along with them.
4/ Ask which schools the other children in your child’s year group have come from. This is extremely revealing. If they have been to good nurseries, primary schools or prep schools, this is an excellent sign.
5/ Ask to stay for lunch.
6/ Ask to speak to a few parents.
7/ If the school is sufficiently small, there may be only one or very few teachers in each department. Particularly if your child is joining for A Level, these teachers will play a large role. So ask to meet them. Look at their experience. Ask to join one of their lessons.
8/ Make sure you have met the most senior and important teacher that it is reasonable to meet. This may not be the head. Often the teacher who will be your child’s tutor, housemaster or class teacher is much more important. With some independent schools you can stipulate that the teacher you meet and like needs to be the one who has that relationship with your child i.e. you accept a place on the condition that your child will be taught by a particular reception year teacher.
9/ Talk to as many children at the school as you can. Find out why they came to the school. Have any younger siblings also joined? If not, why not? Are they and their parents happy with the school? Remember, the child who takes you on a tour may have been handpicked. Don’t be too suspicious – this is not a tourist trip to North Korea. But try and see beyond the marketing machine.
10/ Ask direct rather than open ended questions, which can feel quite confrontational but should elicit the response you are after. So not: ‘Is there a drugs problem’ but ‘How do you deal with the national drugs problem amongst teenagers?’; at a highly selective school not ‘How many of your pupils win acceptance to Oxbridge’ but ‘Why do so few of your pupils gain acceptance to Oxbridge when you are so selective?’; not ‘How long do your staff tend to stay for’ but ‘What are you doing to improve your staff retention rate?’; not ‘Is there a bullying problem’ but ‘What do you still need to do to completely eradicate bullying?’
About the author: Charles Bonas is a tutor and education entrepreneur. He is the founder of Bonas MacFarlane Education.