Independent school open day season is upon us, but how do you make the most of these occasions and find out if the school is the right one for you and your child?
Wilmslow Prep School, which has open days coming up on Saturday 5th October and Wednesday 27th November has produced a list of questions to help.
1. Class sizes – one of the main advantages of opting for an independent education is that class sizes will be smaller than in the state sector. Find out how many pupils are in the class your child would be joining. Clearly there are advantages to small classes but you probably don’t want the class to be too small.
Ask what is the maximum number of pupils in a class. It’s important that the school has a policy on this as numbers can easily creep up.
2. Differentiation – its not just about class sizes. Find out how, within a class, the school differentiates its teaching – in other words are the brighter pupils stretched, the less able ones supported and nurtured, and those in the middle NOT left to coast. And differentiation is not just about ability but also about learning styles of children – some are visual learners, some kinaesthetic.. how are these dealt with? How are the different learning styles of boys and girls recognised, and the teaching adapted to suit these?
Also, do teachers have an assistant or another teacher to support them in their classrooms, to enable this differentiation to take place effectively? This is particularly important in the Infant years when solid foundations must be laid for future success.
3. Specialist Teachers – does the school have teachers who focus purely on their own subject – eg for Sport and PE, languages, music, maths, science. The use of specialist teachers can add great value to the way in which a subject is taught, and also means the pupils experience different teaching styles, all of which will enrich their school life. Furthermore, as they move up through their junior years, specialist teachers help the pupils to prepare for their life at Senior school where teaching is almost always by subject teacher, rather than through a Form teacher.
4. Academic achievement is going to be important at all stages of your child’s school journey. If you are visiting a prep school find out the success rate the school has getting pupils in to the senior school of their choice and ask for the percentage pass rate for the senior school exams. It is also useful to find out which schools do the children move on to? Is there a good variety which reflects that the School believes in the individuality of its pupils and therefore both advises parents and prepares children accordingly? Or do all pupils tend to move onto only 1 or 2 schools, as if one size fits all – clearly never the case!
5. But don’t just focus on academic achievement. What are your own child’s strengths, talents and interests? Is he or she a budding sport superstar or passionate about music or art? Find out what importance is placed on such subjects by the school within the daily curriculum and again ask how they are taught – by a specialist or otherwise. Are there teams for sport? What about opportunities to enter events such as sports competitions or Music Festivals, organised locally or even nationally? What success does the school have in these areas?
6. Pastoral care – A strong academic record and a curriculum that extends all children is important, but so is pastoral care. Find out what the school does to enhance pupils’ experience at the school/ensure pupils’ wellbeing. A good question to ask is ‘What is the best thing you do which supports pupils to enjoy their school life?’
7. Special Education Needs (SEN) support varies tremendously from school to school. Many people think it’s all about helping children who are struggling but that’s not the full picture. Pupils who are gifted and talented should also be offered SEN support to stretch them.
This links back to the point about differentiation – it’s important whatever your child’s academic abilities.
8. Lunches – children need a healthy diet and children who are well fed, learn well. Find out what the school policy is on healthy eating, is there one? The children will be offered snacks at break time – what are they? How are school lunches structured – is there more than one sitting, are the children offered a choice? Why not ask to see a sample menu for a week. If your child has food allergies or intolerances it’s really important to understand how the school copes with these.
9. Parental involvement in school life – education works best when schools work hand in glove with families. Find out how parents are involved in day to day learning and what communication there is between the school and families. Also ask about the Parents’ Committee – how active is it and can you get involved?
10. Extra-curricular activities – what’s on offer. Ask to see a list of sports and other clubs and activities that your child can get involved with. If your child is an aspiring sports star then make sure the school offers after school clubs and weekend events, as well as the opportunities within the curriculum itself .
11. Before and after school care – for many working parents the availability of an early drop off and later pick up, be it every day or occasionally, is critical. Find out if there are early and late classes and their times.
12. Pushing boundaries – Finally, a good school will always go the extra mile to engage pupils in activities which push pupils’ boundaries. This might be events in the local community which challenge pupils and help them to grow in confidence – or it might be taking them away on their first overnight trip away from home, be it abroad or in this country.
If such experiences are offered, don’t forget to find out what they cost.
So tuck this list under your arm and head off to the open days!