How to choose a school for your child...a beginner’s guide

Posted on: 27 Oct 2015

Matthew Unsworth, Headmaster of Barrow Hills School in Surrey - a preparatory school for children aged two -13, offers his advice about what to consider when deciding on your child’s school…

So your child is on its feet and the end of nappies may be in sight (believe me, as a father of three, that day does finally come...hang in there!) Thoughts turn to schools. In my tenth year of headship of a primary aged school, and as a father of two boys of seven and a girl of four, forgive me for offering some words of advice and wisdom.

Firstly - what sort of parent are you? There are various ways of answering this question so here’s a guide. At one end of the spectrum there are the parents who, above all else, want their child to be educated in the most intellectually challenging environment as possible, in a system hard wired to passing exams. If they have friends, well that comes second because they are off to Oxbridge and this journey towards academic success starts on day one. At the opposite end are the parents who want their child to be happy. To enjoy the years of childhood. They want them to be loved and to have friends. Doing well academically comes second. Most parents lie in between these two extremes and the commensurate schools available. But before I go on to schools, it is worth pausing and asking yourself, honestly, what matters most about your child’s primary school years?

Now, on to schools: Just as you tell an estate agent you want a certain house with the requisite number of bedrooms in a particular type of location, he or she will show you several houses that on the face of it fit the bill or near enough. Yet when you see them how different they all are!

Are you someone who likes facts and figures? Do you want to know the precise details to understand the school or are you empathetic, do you go by feel and atmosphere and just ‘know’ when it is right? Not every Head will be in tune with your way of evaluating so do be brave and if you are a details person and the Head is expounding in broad, sweeping gestures about the heart and soul of the school whilst you really want to know the drop off and pick up times and if it does ballet and after school club – well then just ask! I propose three lenses to look through when considering schools. These are academic, values and happiness.

Academic covers everything on the timetable. The times they are with a teacher learning specific things such as maths, music, art and sport. Is there a hierarchy? Do maths and English matter more than music and art? Do you want them to? If you choose a school that places excellence on the core subjects first and all else second - and you really want a school that values, the broadest education possible - you will not be happy as a parent and vice versa.

Secondly, values. Weaving in and through the school, what does it stand for? Does the leadership represent a valid role model? Thinking back, what values did your own school experience give you? Can you think of someone who stands out in your memories as being honest, kind, fair, merciful or perhaps the opposite? What values do you have at home and how important are they to you? Often the gentle Christian atmosphere most of us who went to school in England ‘in our day’ experienced is now largely absent. Outside of a faith school these wider and deeper values are rarely articulated. Do you care? If you do and are unsure what the school stands for, again ask.

Thirdly, happiness. Here I am not talking about mindfulness or well-being, just a plain old fashioned childhood. Do they have space and time to run around, dig holes, climb trees? Are they allowed outside if it snows? Does the school permit conkers? Or goggles for swimming (sadly, you can’t make it up these days…). Does the school give them time to be bored? I am going to come off the fence at this point and give my opinion: whether or not you are willing to trade away your son or daughter’s childhood to the anvil of passing exams, and relentlessly push them whilst they are young and pliant enough not to push back, you should not. They will not thank you for never spending the time with them on your hands and knees making castles out of boxes. They won’t have happy memories of mindlessly watching as you fill out some sheet at a museum - supposedly designed for them but instead completed by their competitive parent. We all only have one childhood and our recollections of it define our approach to life. Trade it away at your peril. The race to have your child read ‘War and Peace’ by the age of four is destructive and we should all instead learn to spend time with our children and choose a school that values this too.

So, good luck! Just as no book prepared you to be a mum and dad, you just had to step up to the responsibility and found the way forward, equally there is no one ‘perfect school’. Good people and good things are the norm and as long as you talk about what you want, what you value, and build a relationship with the school you choose, it should all work out.

And what happens when it doesn’t? Well, that’s another story….

About ISC Press Office

The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.