Corporal punishment, yes, but no exam league tables, no Ofsted, no national curriculum, no GCSEs … Schooling in the 1930s? The 1950s? No, this was education at the start of 1986, when the first edition of The Good Schools Guide was published.
Since 1986 most independent boys’ schools have vanished and reinvented themselves as co-ed. Girls’ schools have had to perk up or perish. Private prep schools have morphed from mostly small, austere, single sex and boarding, to co-ed cheer-fests with nurseries and often well over 200 children. Education chains have bought up dozens of schools, both in the private and state sectors. Of the many august Roman Catholic boys’ boarding schools, only one remains – The Oratory School near Reading.
The current government has been particularly hot on change. Pupils today survive nursery checks, a national “phonics screening” at age six and two rounds of key stage tests (to include a brand new grammar and spelling exam from this summer) before they learn to do up their senior school tie. New GCSEs and A-levels, modelled on old O and A levels (or on IGCSEs and Cambridge Pre-U exams, depending on who you talk to), are on the drawing board.
So what should parents look for when choosing a school?
Start early. Parents seeking top primaries may need the forward planning of the Bank of England and the cunning of Ronnie Biggs, especially in London. Champion planners research catchment areas, or start attending church, shortly after their child’s birth (Nick Clegg and David Miliband, both atheists, send their children to Roman Catholic and Church of England schools). True world-class planners will avoid giving birth June through August to rule out producing a member of the newly identified underclass: the “summer born”.
Consult the usual suspects … then get moving. Ofsted reports, though useful, can be hard to decipher and don’t see the school from a parent’s point of view. Independent Schools Council reports can read a bit like headmasters slapping one another on the back. League tables are just one, often unreliable, indicator of how a school performs. Even The Good Schools Guide can’t always tell you if a school is right for your child.
Nothing beats visiting a school in person. Visit a few – comparisons help. Is there an atmosphere of quiet (not silent) purposefulness? Take travel logistics seriously, especially at primary. It’s not just drop-off and pick-up; there will be class plays, parent meetings, frantic phone calls from a tiny voice in the school office pleading for forgotten trainers. Make a list of anything important to you – it’s easy to forget when you’re there. Sport? Music? The schools to which pupils progress? Pay attention to your gut reaction. Would you feel happy dropping your child there each morning?
Thinking of going private? There is a case for forking out at this age. Fees are lower than they will be further down the track, and the pain can be diluted by taking advantage of the statutory 15 hours of free nursery provision.
It all gets more serious at senior school. A parent once told me that looking for a senior school was the most depressing task they’d ever undertaken. Take the bull by the horns and ask prospective schools for their last three years’ exam results – separated by subject. This will help you see which subjects are most popular, along with strengths, weaknesses and oddities.
When you visit a secondary school look at noticeboards for signs of lots going on. Every school says it has plenty of extracurricular activities but don’t take their word for it. Ask for a timetable of what happens when and who is eligible. Is your talented flautist unlikely to get into the orchestra for years because there are plenty of flutes already? Does the trampolining club really exist, or did the teacher move to another school last year? What about Spanish or the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme?
Dig deep on scholarships and bursaries. Most independent schools now focus their largesse on means-tested bursaries rather than academic scholarships, leaving scholarships with all the honour but little of the cash. But there are many exceptions, so shop around. Take care when comparing fees at different schools. Some quote an all-in fee (sometimes including uniform); others seem cheaper but bolt on compulsory “extras” (books!) that can add 25 per cent to the bill. Ask how school numbers have fluctuated recently – you don’t want to be stuck in a sinking ship.
Should you be thinking of a tutor? If you’re looking at entrance to most grammar schools or to an independent London day school the answer may well be yes – though the school of Mum and Dad can serve just as well. The idea isn’t to coach a dimwit into Einstein but to consolidate their maths and English, prepare them for unfamiliar horrors – verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests or topics not yet covered by the national curriculum – and get them used to formal, timed conditions.
At sixth form it’s all change. “Private” kids may move to a state sixth form college for more A-level options or to impress unis with their street cred. Catchment areas become more flexible, as do religious schools’ requirements. Older students can travel farther to reach school. And connoisseurs may seek less common fare, such as the International Baccalaureate or Cambridge Pre-U.
Janette Wallis is a senior editor of ‘The Good Schools Guide’; www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk