Advice on choosing an independent school
Date of Article
Feb 10 2011

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While some parents are concerned about academic standards, many are as concerned about other factors that can make all the difference to their child’s happiness at school: the pastoral care; scope for developing a particular enthusiasm such as drama, art, fencing or even polo; the availability of extra tuition for a child who, while brilliant at football, struggles with science or is mildly dyslexic. Some children thrive in a more competitive environment, whilst others do better in a smaller, more homely setting; where emphasis is more on nurturing creative and communication skills than aiming for Oxbridge. There is “no best school” that suits all children equally. Consequently, there are many excellent, often lesser-known, independent schools that cater superbly for children requiring a particular extra.

Many parents are influenced by their own past experiences or family traditions. A mother may have spent many joyful hours on the lacrosse pitch; enjoying the camaraderie that involvement in sport creates. Her daughter on the other hand, may enjoy drama and public speaking, so would be better suited to a school with a focus on the performing arts. A visit to any boarding school in the 21st century will be a very different experience to how it might have appeared 25 years ago. The school may once have offered an all boys’ education but is now co-educational, changing the atmosphere and philosophy significantly. Rows of beds in long dormitories with bare floorboards may have been replaced by brand new or refurbished boarding houses, with individual study areas and Wi-Fi internet access. In all cases, schools are living communities that are constantly changing, so it is important for parents to visit, to assess what each school offers now in terms of ethos, curriculum specialities and facilities, and not make decisions based on how they were when perhaps a child’s great grandfather was there!

Then we have the league tables! As a parent, it is hard to resist using these as a starting point to assess the academic achievements of the pupils attending a particular school.  This information, however, should be treated, only as a small part of any fact-finding research.

There are many factors that contribute to the success of the pupils of a school. Emphasis should also be placed on the added value curriculum. Not all schools are selective. One could argue that it is relatively easy to be a school in the premier division of the league tables if there is a competitive entry examination, where there are 800 applications for 100 places. In my opinion, the schools that should be given credit are those which are less selective but still achieve excellent results.

All independent schools offer a breadth of educational and extra-curricular opportunities. If every pupil has been given educational opportunities appropriate to their academic abilities and interests and, upon leaving, has achieved their first choice university or vocational training course, a school should not be deemed less successful than one with a 50% entry to Oxbridge.  Success in music and sport; professional drama productions; voluntary work in the local community and overseas; fundraising for charity; confident, independent pupils with citizenship, leadership and social skills are all value added elements that are just as important as academic achievement.

Increasingly, the views of the child are having an influence on the final school choice. Prep school children often compare notes with their peers, and there are undoubtedly schools that, for whatever reason, are considered to be ‘cool’! When asked why they have formed an opinion, the children can not always mention clear reasons. Sometimes it is because they have left with a goodie bag, sometimes they liked the warmth of the Housemaster and his family, sometimes the historical buildings gave them a sense of history and tradition. Rarely have a I heard a child say that it is because the school produces confident, successful pupils with all-round skills enabling them to follow whatever course of further study or career path they have chosen for the future. Consequently, my advice would be to allow the child to be part of the decision making process but not to make the final decision.

Choosing an independent school can be a confusing process. Navigating your way through the minefield of information on school websites, which make every school look fabulous; listening to the input of other parents and children, who may all have very different views of the same school; visiting a number of schools where you feel that they all have something special to offer.  None of these options alone is the clear front runner for making the final decision but considering all these routes does contribute towards making this process a very difficult one. My suggestion would be to carry out all the research you can via prospectuses and websites, visit the schools you would like to consider further and then make a decision based on what you, as parents, feel is right for your child. It is said that opinions are formed in the first 10 seconds and made by what feels right from the heart. Organisations such as Gabbitas can offer you support and guidance throughout the selection process but the final decision is yours!

Established in 1873, Gabbitas is one of the UK's leading educational consultancies offering advice and support in all aspects of independent education.  Visit or call 020 734 0161