The school should fit the pupil, not the other way around

Posted on: 19 Feb 2016
Posted by: Kevin Doble

With experience of the London prep school scene, Kevin Doble, Headmaster at Shrewsbury House School, gives his views on the nature of the school admissions process.

This blog is in response to an article published in TES .

A few months ago we had a call from a father who wished to register his unborn child for a place. He commented that neither he nor his wife wished to know the sex of the child until it was born; however, they felt that they did need to secure for 'it' a place at a good school and so were registering the unborn child for a place at both a boys' school and a girls' school. He offered to pay a non-returnable deposit of half a term's fees to secure the place.

On the other side of the coin are the parents who have assumed that it would be quite acceptable to wait until they have received advice from their pre-prep before embarking on the choice of prep school, only to discover that they have completely missed the boat as all places on the conditional place lists have gone. On several occasions I have had parents who have offered to pay the fees for a full year upfront to try and secure a place. Or, on one instance last year, a parent who offered to pay the fees for the boys' entire career at the prep school, plus interest and a generous contribution to our development fund.

The reality is that there are far too few good prep schools able to cater for the enormous demand currently, particularly in London and South West London. The anxiety that has been whipped up has seen parents register their children for schools that they have not even seen, let alone know a reasonable amount about. Approximately one third of all of our applications come from parents who have yet to pay a visit to Shrewsbury House.

My advice to parents (and to Schools consultancy firms) is that the parent should first visit a school before considering any form of application. The choice of a pre-prep and prep school, in my opinion, should be determined to a large part by the perception that the parents have of the school being a good fit for them and their family. This should be based on considerations such as the School's philosophy and attitude towards education, the relationship that the pupils have with the teachers, the partnership of the school with the parents, and the genuine breadth of an aspirational curriculum. Critically and fundamentally, the parent should also be given the opportunity to be able to see the school alive and see first-hand the engagement of the pupils with the teachers and with each other.

We operate a system which allows parents to sign up their sons for a place at the school at any age following the birth. This list is known as the conditional places list and is populated only by the number of places we have available in the year that the boys would enter the school. Irrespective of the age of the boy when the application is made, all boys who are registered to enter Shrewsbury House in Year Three will sit an entry assessment in their first term in Year One. For every assessed boy, there is a potential place for the boy at the school. Irrespective of how early the child has been registered, unless the assessment satisfies us that the child is likely to flourish at the school, the conditional place will not be confirmed as a secured place. Any unsecured places that might become available following the assessments are offered to boys on the waiting list.

Part of the enormous increase in demand for places at Shrewsbury House lies in the desire of many parents to escape from what they perceive to be the rat race of education closer to London. Many parents wish for their sons to be immersed in an aspirational and demanding academic curriculum, but they also want their children to have a proper, old-fashioned prep school education in which games, the arts and having fun feature as priorities. Whilst many of the applying parents have great aspirations for their sons to enter the leading senior schools following their time with us, they do not want to see the boys go through their formative years surrounded by concrete playgrounds or by being immersed in hothouses. Similarly, the overwhelming majority are keen for their sons to enter senior schools at 13 when the boys have experienced some leadership opportunities and have had chances to engage in a few of the early trials of adulthood in an environment which is set up to cater for this. They tend to reject school models in which the boys are sent off at 11, one of the most vulnerable times of their lives.

And so whilst there may well be a huge demand for places at relatively few schools, it is fundamentally important that parents know as much as possible about the education in which they wish to invest for their children. Registration might take place in utero, but in good prep schools, places should not be confirmed until the child is old enough for the parent and school to recognise that the fit would allow for them to thrive. It is a complete nonsense for this most important journey to be absolutely determined alone on what appears to be the good name of a school. The school should fit the pupil, not the other way around.

Irrespective of what the market forces seem to be dictating, ensuring the right fit for a child and school is fundamentally and critically important, and the first step to ensure this is not to pay a consultant to fill in a few forms for you, but to visit the school personally.

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About Kevin Doble

Kevin Doble is Headmaster at Shrewsbury House School, a boys prep school in South West London.