The Only Way Is Up

Six schools’ head teachers share their wisdom on how best to choose a secondary school that will be the right ft for your child.

Ben Freeman, Headmaster, Finton House School

What in your view are the key criteria when choosing the next school after primary/prep?
The ethos of the school has to be right, so either a competitive academic environment, or a school that is non-selective and inclusive. Look for the best ft for your child’s character. Try to discover whether the school actually delivers on the aspects that are important to you, or whether they are just aspirational. To what extent does the school individualise the education on offer, and how far will they go to meet your child’s own needs?

Where do location, logistics and the ft for the family come in the pecking order?
It is important that the school embraces a similar set of values to your own. This is a partnership and mutual trust is essential between school and home. Consider family logistics – will your child be able to walk to school and if not, what are the options? Will there be other local children for them to spend time with?

Should the decision be based exclusively on academic attainment?
No. Children can only reach their potential if they feel happy, safe, valued and fulfilled, so it is important that a school is developing their physical, creative and academic potential equally. In London, the amount of time children will spend outdoors is significant, in the context of looking after their mental health. How are children helped to manage the stress of exams? What support does the school provide to encourage resilience and teach children how to develop the skills and values they need to flourish in a rapidly changing and challenging world?

How important is co-curricular activity, such as sport and clubs when looking at private day/weekly boarding/secondary schools?
A good school can be measured on the strength of its co-curricular programme and will offer the broadest range of high quality experiences, where children can try things out and discover their individual strengths. Delve into whether the school actually delivers these things – they may look good on a list but are they really available to every child? In terms of boarding, are children actively encouraged to take part in activities and are they available in the evenings and at weekends?


Steph Neale, Head Teacher, Beatrix Potter School

What in your view are the key criteria when choosing the next school after primary/prep?
Go and have a look first. There is no magic to this process, but a visit will give you a good feel for the school. Don’t believe everything you are told – you must see it for yourself. Look at exam pass rates and the wider curriculum too – what does the school offer in addition to the academics? Does it run the Duke of Edinburgh scheme, for example? Look for what it may offer to give your child
a good, all-round education.

Where do location, logistics and the ft for the family come in the pecking order?
Locally, if you’re a girl you can walk to Burntwood School; if you’re a boy, to Ernest Bevin College. If parents decide on private then they’re often prepared for their children to go halfway across London, and it depends on the child too. If that school is right for your child then logistics don’t matter so much. Between 30-40% of Beatrix Potter pupils go on to private schools; Dulwich, Emanuel and Whitgift are all popular.

Should the decision be based exclusively on academic attainment?
A
cademic attainment is important, but the wider curriculum is just as significant.

How important is co-curricular activity, such as sport and clubs when looking at private day/weekly boarding/secondary schools?
They can widen a child’s horizons and reflectthe vibrancy of the school, and they can help  parents who work late too.

TOP TIPS WHEN STARTING SENIOR SCHOOL

• Make sure you pack your bag the night before to avoid last minute panics, and don’t carry too much.

• Add something personal like a key ring to your bag to help you identify it – they all look the same otherwise!

• Try to do homework the day you get it, even if it’s not for the next day. That way, you won’t be leaving it until the last minute, leaving yourself lots to do the night before.

• Always make sure you read your timetable and pack all the right books.

• Clubs are a good place to start when trying to make friends. Find out what you’re good at, join a club and you’ll make friends with people who have the same interests as you. There are always plenty of clubs to choose from including sports, music, drama, art and science.

Source: Sutton High School

Sarah Segrave, Headmistress, Eaton House The Manor Prep School

What in your view are the key criteria when choosing the next school after primary/prep?
The criteria might be different for every family, and it’s extremely important to base any decisions on what matters for your family, not on other people’s criteria or opinions. When choosing schools for my own children I consider:

The Head. Are they charismatic, a strong leader, somebody who shares our family values? Will they inspire my child and be a good role model for them? The Staff. Are they warm and approachable, do they seem excited and engaged in their teaching? Are they experienced? Facilities. Will there be the opportunity and resources available to help my child discover their strengths and passions? Size and organisation. How will my child be known and noticed? Who will track their happiness and progress?

Where do location, logistics and the ft for the family come in the pecking order?
This depends on how many children you have! In an ideal world, parents would consider each child in isolation; in practice many parents choose a school for their eldest child and younger siblings
follow. Logistics are important for older children making their own way to and from school, and ensuring this journey is safe and manageable ought to be a key consideration.

Should the decision be based exclusively on academic attainment?
Absolutely not. The competitive nature of London schools in particular, encourages a mindset which says ‘will they get in?’ instead of ‘will they thrive there?’. Do take into account your child’s personality and what they will need out of a school when making any decisions. At Eaton House The Manor we focus on the happiness of the individual boy, ensuring that on our watch he thrives and achieves his very best in every way. That means academically, in his sporting and extra-curricular life, and socially.

How important is co-curricular activity, such as sport and clubs when looking at private day/weekly boarding/secondary schools?
If prep schools are a place where children try everything, then senior schools ought to be the place where greater choice is given to pupils to help them pursue their own interests and dreams. Having a wide range is key and we offer a huge range of after school clubs. For children who are boarding, it is important that as many activities and clubs as possible are available, but there should also be opportunities during the week for them to be in charge of their own free time rather than always in a teacher-led activity.

THE LANGUAGE OF LEARNING

In 2011, Whitgift had the opportunity to radically rethink the structure of its language offering, with exciting results.

Languages are core to the curriculum and seen not simply as a skill, but as an academic endeavour with important cognitive benefits that can impact a pupil’s broader attainment. Year 6 pupils pursue a tailor-made languages awareness programme, including the study of Korean. In the main intake year, Year 7s study three languages of different types – French/Spanish, Japanese/Chinese and German/Latin. Pupils are expected to pursue two of those at GCSE level.

Studying languages of such different types ensures that pupils learn about the nature of language, which not only makes them better at the languages they are learning, but also has a positive influence on their English as well as effectively acquiring new languages.

Source: Whitgift School

Edward Rees, Head, Hornsby House School

What in your view are the key criteria when choosing the next school after primary/prep?
There is state versus independent, single sex versus co-ed, day versus boarding and, for some children at more traditional prep schools, the option of a move at either 11+ or 13+. Academic considerations are inevitably high up on the list, particularly with London being such a competitive market, unfortunately with less choice for those who are either less able or just need more time to mature academically. The quality of facilities and space will seduce some, as will location. Don’t underestimate the feel of a school – the ethos, first impressions and the person at the helm – which can be very powerful in the decision-making process.

Where do location, logistics and the ft for the family come in the pecking order?
As much as we’d all want our children’s secondary school right on the doorstep, it rarely will be, and making a decision based solely on convenience is dangerous as the nearest school may not be the best ft for your child. If a key factor for parents though is to have all siblings in the same school, then they may accept that the school might not be the best ft for all of them. A busy family, perhaps with both parents working, cannot discount logistics, but with good transport links and many schools offering coach services, it should not be the main driver. Whilst it can appear daunting for parents to see their 11 year old setting off to catch a train or bus, they are almost always traveling in groups, enjoy the sense of independence and responsibility and quickly become very adept at negotiating their route – they’ll soon be teenagers!

Should the decision be based exclusively on academic attainment?
Most parents, in partnership with their primary/prep head, will want to select a secondary school that offers an appropriate academic challenge for their child. Given that most of the secondary options will have good facilities, strong pastoral systems and exciting co-curricular programmes, for many parents the academics will be key. You do not want your child to struggle though; this can erode self-esteem and your child’s happiness should be paramount. That said, there are always late developers and academic potential should not be stifled. The secondary schools have to draw a line in the sand somewhere when assessing applicants, but those that select purely on academic attainment are missing out on some real talent – there is always a place for a good egg!

How important is co-curricular activity, such as sport and clubs when looking at private day/weekly boarding/secondary schools?
Excellent co-curricular provision is what parents have come to expect of the top independent boarding and day schools. However, I do not think that it is one of the main reasons why parents choose boarding over day; both put a considerable emphasis upon this aspect of education and do it very well. That said, a child with a real talent or interest in sport, music, art or drama may be best suited to a school that has exceptional provision in that particular field.

What in your view are the key criteria when choosing the next school after primary/prep?
Look at the academic success of the school, how pupils have fared in exams and where pupils move onto after sixth form. Gauge the reputation of the school, perhaps from your prep school head, remembering that league tables only tell part of the story. A senior  school can change quickly, though it will take a number of years before this is shown in exam results. It might also be reassuring
to seek feedback from parents who have children already attending the school.

The atmosphere and culture, in particular the relationship between staff and pupils, staff and the head and senior staff, and between the pupils themselves, is very important. Quite often parents have a ‘gut feeling’ on a visit as to whether it’s the right ft for their child. Try to find out about the teaching ability at the school, possibly different from the pupils’ academic achievements. Also get a feel for both the curricular and extra-curricular activities as well as the school’s facilities.

Where do location, logistics and the ft for the family come in the pecking order?
Fit for the family is key. The school will be continuing your child’s personal and academic growth and it has to be right for them and for you. Realistically in London children will need to travel, though it is important that this is manageable and they can cope. Many senior schools are good at making these logistics as easy as possible either by providing transport or advising on other pupils that travel the same route. The setting of a school is important and makes a big first impression, but the actual size and location does have an impact on learning so consider this aspect for your child too.

Should the decision be based exclusively on academic attainment?
No. Look at what else the school offers – is there sufficient variety and opportunity for your child? The way a school broadens a young person’s horizons through study, sport and the arts is crucial so they can develop their talents in a safe and supportive environment. Pupils should be willing to make mistakes and learn from them to build their confidence. Personal development, resilience and a growth mindset should be the overall goal; academic attainment will be the natural effect of this approach.

How important is co-curricular activity, such as sport and clubs when looking at private day/weekly boarding/secondary schools?
Hugely important. Co-curricular is a chance to try things out, work in a team,  experience activities that may reveal a talentor just provide fun. The knock-on effect on confidence and therefore achievement is not  to be underestimated.

What are the pros and cons of secondary/private day and weekly boarding options?
This really comes down to personal choice and knowing what will suit your child. What some would see as a pro others might feel is a con. Your primary/prep school head should be able to give you advice and guidance, both about the schools you are applying to and what might suit your child. This is a key part of the senior school selection process at Parkgate. It’s also important not to be swayed by other parents’ opinions.

TEAMWORK

Working with others is a fundamental part of life and often central to wellbeing, as well as success in higher education and employment. It is vital that schools are providing opportunities for pupils to learn how to genuinely collaborate, influence and compromise.

At King’s College School, pupils develop their teamwork skills in a variety of ways, including:

• Partnerships with the local community – pupils support the teaching of Maths, Latin, Chinese, Games, Art and Music at local primary, special and secondary schools, collaborate on open doors projects and productions and welcome elderly guests to our weekly friendship hour

• Co-curricular activities – pupils run clubs and societies, participate in CCF and DofE and represent their houses in a range of activities

• Sport – pupils participate in 18 competitive sports and have at least one games afternoon per week

• Music – a full-size symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, three choirs, wind band, jazz and chamber music ensembles

• Drama – four productions in the last term alone, including a fabulous ensemble cast in School of Rock

Source: King’s College School

Vania Adams, Head, The Roche School

What in your view are the key criteria when choosing the next school after primary/prep?
The years running up to the transition to secondary are formative in many ways. A child will absorb the values of the school they are in, and as long as these align to your family’s values, the child is likely to be happy, supported and successful. Teaching and learning are important – don’t be too blinded by facilities. It is what is happening in the classroom that counts, so make sure you have a proper look.

Where do location, logistics and the ft for the family come in the pecking order?
As children get older, they can handle a longer journey to school and for many London pupils, the bus or train ride in the morning is part of the social calendar. Bear in mind though, that it is always an advantage to  have friends in the neighbourhood and that is more likely at a local school than one situated halfway across London.
Taking the whole family into consideration is crucial. It doesn’t matter if children end up at different schools. It does matter if the fnancial sacrifce is so great that it causes stress and anxiety, or the journey is taking its toll on the whole family as well as the child. Thoroughly brainstorm the pros and cons of any potential school; you want the placement to work.

Should the decision be based exclusively on academic attainment?
Academic attainment is important but it must be balanced in relation to the holistic development of the child. A truly successful child has good social and emotional intelligence, a sense of enjoyment of the world and a strong creative drive. If these aspects are squeezed out in the quest for grades, everybody lose.

How important is co-curricular activity, such as sport and clubs when looking at private day/weekly boarding/secondary schools?
The importance of co-curricular activitycannot be over-stated. A good range ofextra-curricular activities will create opportunities for children as well as introducing them to skills they never knew they had. Whether it is LegoRobotix, cooking or karate, they can really add to the experience of the school day.

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