Some Thoughts on Choosing a School By Phillip Evitt
Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions you will make as a parent. This topic has been even more on my mind than usual recently, either in light of the results of senior school assessments that our pupils have taken, meetings with current parents to advise on next schools, or from the opposite perspective of meeting prospective parents. We welcomed many to our Open Morning last Saturday and met a large number of prospective London parents at our annual 'Educating Outside London' drinks reception that we hosted in Chelsea on Wednesday evening.
Advising parents on senior school choice and working closely with them to find the very best fit for their children, coupled with promoting the virtues of Highfield and Brookham to prospective parents are two highly enjoyable and stimulating facets of my role as Head, with each complimenting the other. Visiting senior schools and prep schools, and meeting Heads, Registrars and Directors of Admissions allows me to regularly play the part of a prospective parent, weighing up the merits of a school and responding to their strengths, offering, character and atmosphere. On the basis of many such visits over the years I can unequivocally reassure parents that it is genuinely very difficult indeed to encounter a bad school, they are all impressive, it is simply about finding the right school.
What I find fascinating is that while most schools share a common vocabulary of promotion, ‘outstanding pastoral provision, exceptional academic strength, breath taking facilities, outstanding co-curricular provision and breadth’ etc. etc. and are in so many ways remarkably similar in their offering, and do indeed deliver exceptional all round education and opportunity to their pupils, each school really does have its own unique character and feel. Some schools I will feel naturally at ease in, others less so, this doesn’t make them in any way bad schools, it is simply a reflection of my taste and gut feel. Others will have the entirely opposite reaction. For this reason I always tell parents to ignore their gut at their peril, if it isn’t right for you, the chances are it won’t be right for your child, but conversely will prove a marriage made in heaven for others. There really is the right school out there for your child. Finding that school takes time, a number of visits, requires honesty, the willingness to explore different options, a flexibility of mind and the occasional leap of faith.
My starting point is always to ask parents to give real thought to their ‘non-negotiables’ in what they are looking for from a school. These can include the point of entry, is it 11+ or 13+, do they want co-ed or single sex, day or boarding, weekly boarding or full? Do they mind whether the school is rural or urban, large or small, close, or over two hours away? Do they want serious academics or something less rarefied? With answers to these questions and a sound knowledge of their child’s strengths, character and interests, a truly collaborative and honest conversation can then flow about options to consider. While always keen to match non-negotiables to suggested schools, I will always advise those firmly set on a co-ed environment to at least check out one single sex option, it might just surprise them and could be of real benefit to the child. It is also important to consider that when choosing a senior school for your child, you have to think of them as sixteen year olds and however much the rolling acres of a rural boarding school might appeal to you, they might not thank you for marooning them in deepest Dorset when they would much rather have been in Brighton or Oxford.
Most importantly, we all want our children to flourish and that will only happen in an environment that is appropriately challenging and not one where they will spend years either bumping along the bottom or being unstimulated and bored. So, with a short list of suggested schools to consider it is then a case of visiting them and for me to wait to hear about those gut reactions. Happily, there is almost always a fit, invariably more than one and a strong favourite emerges with a good alternative in reserve, just in case.
Talking to the prospective parents who visited Highfield and Brookham for last Saturday’s Open Morning, Sophie Baber and I were struck by just how many of them had formed their very positive opinions of the schools based on what they described as a ‘gut’ feeling and how the schools just ‘felt right’. They were also struck by the confidence and ease they saw in the pupils that toured them, proof if any was needed of how their parents too had followed their gut. Remember, ignore your gut at your peril!