Making sense of it all

Posted on: 01 Feb 2016

"It's really hard being a parent. The process of choosing the right independent school is a very difficult process." Matthew Smith, Editor of Attain, gives his advice on choosing an independent school.

It's really hard being a parent. The process of choosing the right independent school is a very difficult process. In a highly competitive and pressured market, it is easy for parents to be pushed or pulled in the wrong direction by unhelpful or biased advice.

Myriad schools’ guides, lifestyle magazines and website directories vie for attention. The result is that independent schools become objectified as a form of financial status symbol; or are selectively chosen for ‘education guides’ based purely on a perceived social caché rather than the quality of education on offer.

Over the ten years I have been editing Attain, Heads have regularly lamented the mess of information available to prospective parents and how easily biased advice gets pushed towards them, masquerading as fact. ISC – and the constituent associations – do an excellent job via their websites to try and help parents but it is reliant on parents knowing their HMC from their GSA, their IAPS from their ISA. There are seemingly just too many acronyms and they are far more likely to go with what they find in the newsagent or bookshop than be aware of the role of our associations.

To the uninitiated, independent schools are daunting, imposing institutions with complicated admissions procedures; the reality (as we all know) is very different. But how should a parent attempt to work out which is the best school for their child? Of course, the answer to that question lies squarely at home with their child. By investing in independent education, parents are purchasing something which is completely unique in life. There is no other commodity in which someone will invest so much time and concern – as well as financial sacrifice – but not directly enjoy.

Paying to educate your child is like going to your favourite restaurant but ordering and paying for the table opposite and eating nothing yourself. What you choose from the menu is critically important but it’s a menu of complexity. Hidden among the choices on offer however is the most wonderful meal possible – parents just need to know where to look. And they therefore need to ask the right questions – both of themselves but also the schools they shortlist and ultimately visit.

A friend recently asked me how to approach a visit to an Open Day. ‘It’s like buying a house’, I replied. ‘You will just know instantly if it feels right.’ I do genuinely believe this and our advice to parents is that they must trust their judgements and gut instinct.

But you need to be in the right mindset before you start; you need to be savvy and know what to look for. In the same way that you don’t go house hunting without having first established some basic criteria, you must initiate the process correctly and with a clear mind. To do this, you first need to jettison any baggage. We are all snobs in one way or another. It’s an inescapable truth which all parents suffer to a greater or lesser extent. Why? Because we want the best for our child and with this comes a hugely complex – and often unhealthy – weight of expectation, mixed with guilt and prejudice. All of us have had some degree of education and therefore base our opinions and perceptions around this. I have yet to meet a parent who wants an education for their child which is worse than the one they received; almost all want better, a few want exactly the same.

As many heads know, the latter is probably the most dangerous as it implies that the education (even the school attended) is the same now as then. Of course, it is not. Any parent thinking about sending their child to their old school, needs to recognise that it is only superficially the same – education today is totally different from thirty years ago. The goal for parents is to find a school at which their child will be happy and therefore thrive academically as well as emotionally. They must find a school at each stage – prep and senior – which correctly balances the academic with the extracurricular and achieves a mix which suits their child.

To solve this problem, a dozen ISC Heads – including four recent Chairmen of HMC and one former President of GSA – have come together to write a free book for parents, now published. Our goal has been to create an ‘essential primer’ – something which all parents should read before taking the leap and choosing any school. We also wanted to debunk a few myths along the way and look at some of the common sources of confusion for prospective parents.

Together, we hope we have created something which will not only help parents but also help all ISC schools. We all want prospective parents to visit our schools having done their homework and be clear in their choices and decisions. The tricky balance of finding the right fit between pupil and school might just become slightly easier.

The Attain guide to choosing an independent school for your child is available as a free download from

(Photograph courtesy of Haberdashers’ Agincourt School)

About ISC Press Office

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