Choosing the right school for your child can be bewildering at the best of times. From the early years right through to university, the education highway can be tricky. Consultants are increasingly guiding parents through the quagmire of choice, admissions processes, entrance exams and fierce competition and the experts are unanimous – you need to have a strategy. State, independent, grammar, boarding, sixth form, single sex or co-ed. Try to narrow it down by working out what is important to your family. Charles Bonas, Founder of Bonas MacFarlane, suggests looking through a wider prism at schools that prepare students for work. “Employers are actively looking for a broad spectrum of cognitive abilities. It is worth considering schools that select students with a wide variety of skills, talent and potential.”
Know your child
Much of the role of an educational consultant is guiding parents towards understanding what their children are good at and where they will be the most confident.
“Data is key,” says Mary Lonsdale, Founder of Mentor Education. “Our online assessment tells us students’ current attainment but also their academic potential so that we can recommend the most appropriate schools. Sometimes this means going for those
very academic schools with some targeted tutoring, but sometimes it’s clear that those schools will not be right for them.”
Sophie Irwin, educational consultant and specialist educational needs and disabilities (SEND) specialist, adds. “Your child’s school should be able to tell you how they learn, and what their strengths and weaknesses are so you can select a learning environment that suits. Many schools do Cognitive Abilities Tests (CATs) which will give an indication of their potential and their ability to reason.”
“Combine your child’s academic and anecdotal information from school with their character and interests, likes and dislikes,” concurs Sebastian Hepher, Principal at Eaton Square Schools.
Look beyond the usual suspects
“Do not follow a list of schools that ticks the dinner party circuit box,” warns Hepher.
“Sometimes you only have to look at a school a little further out of London and suddenly everything is possible,” agrees Debbie Bowker, Director of Bowker Consulting Ltd. “For a child that may need a slightly less pressurised and nurturing environment, but is still academically strong, actually being part of the whole cohort without competing or bouncing along at the bottom of a set can make a huge difference to their confidence.” “The best feedback I get from parents is when they say I’ve opened their eyes to schools they didn’t even know existed,” says Irwin.
Get to know the school
Look beyond reputation and league tables to understand the school’s culture, pastoral care, attitudes towards inclusivity, individualism and learning. “When you visit, gauge how happy the students and staff seem and what the relationship between the two is like as well as child-to-child relationships,” advises Hepher. “Talk to the head about their philosophy, where they want to be in ten years’ time, what their sustainability policy looks like, what they are doing about equity, diversity and inclusion,” he continues. Irwin, who also helps parents apply for bursaries and scholarships, recommends that parents look at the school’s outreach policy. “You can gauge a school’s inclusivity by having a look at what their community outreach is and whether they are trying to be more accessible to a diverse range of students.” “Don’t ask closed questions,” advises Bonas. “Don’t ask, ‘Do you have a bullying problem?’ Ask, ‘What do you do if you have a bullying problem?’ You are looking for a school that works with the student and parent community to tackle social problems.”
“Parents who have a child who is considering their sexual identity may be looking for a school that is particularly inclusive and understanding,” adds Bowker.
When time is of the essence, educational consultants can help advise on locations with good and outstanding state schools with spaces. “You have to be very patient when calling schools and councils to find spaces mid-year,” says Sarah Teasdale, Managing Director at Educatus. “For schools that handle their own admissions, call them directly. For those that don’t, contact the schools’ admissions team at the council. The process takes time and perseverance – this is something we can take on for parents.” “When it comes to independent schools, you may be in competition with other parents, so present yourself as a family that they want there.”
If you have a child with special educational needs, you really need to do your homework. “Check if a school can meet your child’s needs, either through their facilities or their policies,” advises Vania Adams, educational consultant for Exceptional Academics. “Ask how those provisions are embedded in everyday school life. Can they accommodate regular movement and rest breaks, quiet time, or a fiddle toy?” Irwin adds, “Much of my work is ensuring that a student’s learning profile is documented to ensure the school can meet their needs and troubleshoot when they can’t “which often occurs around exam access arrangements.”
To consult or not?
Parents can engage with education consultants a little or a lot depending on their needs and their budget – and different consultants have different specialisms:
in the early years or later, in London or beyond, in SEND or in relocations, and there are three main areas where they can help. One is the discovery stage, looking at a range of schools for you and drawing up a shortlist; two is the application process; and three is the preparation. This could be academic tuition, but also emotional preparation – Bonas MacFarlane has a summer camp, Camp Bonas, which prepares children for boarding, for example.
Rather than opting for a full range of services, “Many parents seek short one-to-three-hour consultancy meetings for advice, guidance and education planning,” says Irwin.
“Sometimes children experience difficulties a year or two into school,” she adds. “The first port of call is always to talk to the child and the school. Often the parents don’t know what to do, so I act as a silent mediator preparing them for what they should say to the school.”
The education highway is full of twists and turns. For parents tackling it on their own, the advice from the experts is to ask lots of questions, visit schools, talk to heads, subject teachers and other parents. Keep an open mind – the shortlist of schools you started off with may change completely by the end of the process. For those who need a helping hand, working with an education consultant can save time and money in the long run and provide you with the peace of mind that you have made the right choice for the right reasons.