So what should you expect? How should you prepare? How can you get the most meaningful insights and actually make your choice?
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Schools must understand that this is a huge decision for you as a family. This is a major investment and you are planning to send one of your children – whether 9, 14 or 16 years old – several thousand miles away to be in someone else's care and to educate them remotely. This is daunting.
A good school will try and reassure you every step of the way.
They should offer help with transport, accommodation and be amenable to your timings. You should, as a bare minimum, be offered a free taster stay for your child. School admissions teams should also offer to collect you from airports, provide somewhere to stay for other family members and lay out, in detail, how the visit will go.
What your child needs to bring, what they will do, when and who they will meet. Not all schools do; so take note of the service you receive. It is likely to be an indication of the service and welcome your child should receive when and if you join the school. But don't be blinded: schools may roll out the red carpet but you need to ensure you are seeing absolutely all you need to in order to truly decide whether this is the best place for you and your family.
One of the most important things to think through is what you are looking for, for your child's education and also living environment. Everyone is different: some of you may be looking for an academic hothouse and only A* students; others want a more inclusive approach. Think carefully about what worries you, what the deal-breakers are and what you are unsure about. Try to be realistic about your child and their capabilities, though this is not easy for any of us as parents. Not everyone can be a straight A student going to Cambridge. Much as we would love them to.
When looking at a school, the devil is in the detail. In some ways this is even more of a vital decision than buying a house. Put the 'owners' through the same scrutiny. Don't be wooed by a sales pitch and a tour of only the best parts of a school. This is not a timeshare sale and don't be bamboozled by such techniques.
Make sure you observe everything – from the size of classes to damp on the ceiling; behaviour of pupils to the number of different nationalities. See “warts and all”. Smell the bathrooms (no, seriously, do). Meet current students; look at dorms. Think about your child at home and think about how they would fit in to this new living environment. YOU are the customer and YOU get to see what you want. Ask, ask, ask. Notice, take notes and keep your eyes open.
The-best prepared students and their parents bring a list of questions. The best possible scenario is when the student themselves writes and asks the questions. This keeps us admissions folk on our toes but also helps ensure we are matching the right school to the right young person. Write your questions out and make sure you ask them. All of them. Some of the most incisive questions I have been asked are:
“Do students get homesick?”
“How many people will I share with in a dorm and will any of them be Russian speakers?”
“Can I take this subject combination?”
“What are the additional costs I may not know about?”
“How will the days actually work?”
“How many times a week can I actually do ballet/horse riding/gymnastics?”
“What do we do at weekends?”
“Are girls treated the same as boys?”
“When can I talk to my parents?”
“When do I get to go out into town?”
I could give you the answers to all. And will, should you visit my school.
As well as checking off all your points and getting every answer – look for honesty. If a school tells you they have no bullying and have never had a problem with alcohol or drugs, raise an eyebrow and be skeptical. Ask HOW they deal with such issues. To find the best match, so much is about how a school feels.
This is all about the intangibles: whether you trust the people, whether current students seem happy and whether you can see your child living and learning in this environment. Some of the most luxurious schools with the very best facilities, may just not feel comfortable for you. Talk to students – without them being prepped – about their experiences. Eat the school dinners. See whether teachers are welcoming.
Of course don't forget, this is also about the school being able to meet your child and assessing whether they will fit in and whether they can offer a place. This is about matching the right school to the right student and this can be particularly important when a child has had any behavioural problems, learning support issues or a low level of English.
This is all about truth. It's all about what a school is honestly like. It's all about what you are looking for. It's all about whether your expectations are realistic. It's highly unlikely that any one school will provide a perfect match: it's about the best fit. Ultimately, it's all about where your child will be happiest and do their very best. The two achievements go hand in hand. A happy child will feel confident and thrive.
You should, in a visit or taster, at the very least meet the Headmaster, your child's potential houseparent, see classes in action and view your child's potential boarding accommodation. You may want to meet with specific members of staff such as Learning Support or EAL teachers or the Director of Studies for options. Don't settle for anything less. Don't ever feel you are too demanding. You are the customer and you have to know that the decision you make is the right one.
This is an exciting time. Enjoy it, be prepared, get all the answers you need, spend time in your potential schools and you will know when you have made the right decision as it will feel entirely comfortable and everyone in your family will be excited and decided.
This article was contributed by the Director of Admissions at UK boarding school, Bedstone College, in Bucknell, Shropshire, UK