Choosing a School: Always ask the difficult questions
Originally published by the Girls' Schools Association as part of their Heads' Blogs series.
With so much information available on academic achievements, co-curricular options and pastoral care, picking a school for your child can feel overwhelming.
While this information will help to narrow your search, some questions may be tricky to broach and parents can feel uncomfortable talking to their prospective schools about topics around mental health or academic rigour. My advice to parents is simple: do not be afraid to ask the tough questions.
Wellbeing – Heads and headlines
Issues around wellbeing are not new and schools should already have mechanisms in place to support pupils, in case their adolescent years prove more challenging than expected.
When you meet with the Head, take the time to ask questions about anything that worries you, from anxiety or peer pressure, to eating disorders or discrimination. These issues are too important to shy away from and no topic should be off limits if you are concerned.
Be wary of any school that dismisses you; it suggests that they are either not aware of the issues or may not have the right support structures in place to deal with them. Equally, try not to be drawn in by the sensationalised headlines shouting of epidemics. While these issues do exist, with the right level of support children are often more resilient and self-assured than the ‘snowflake’ headlines would have us believe.
Ultimately, be discerning but open-minded. Try not to be cynical if a school claims to have things under control, but make sure that you probe to find out how.
Navigating the academic landscape
Results help parents make informed decisions about the right academic environment for their child, but keep in mind that every school presents this information differently.
Some schools have multiple exam centres or report statistics based on sets of pupils, while many celebrate with inspirational case studies that offer a great insight into the pupils behind the numbers. However the information is presented, always make sure you have comparable data from each school.
So, with conflicting information to navigate, why not just turn to league tables? The reason that many schools opt out of league tables is that they often fail to represent all the results.
Whether A Levels, IB or Pre-U, some schools offer diverse and globally recognised qualifications that fit in with their academic ethos and the strengths of their pupils. When league tables try to compare schools via these results, or worse, do not include some of the qualifications at all, they do all our pupils and parents a disservice.
Schools should confidently give the best guidance for each pupil, regardless of what this means for traditional league tables. While they have their place, I would urge parents to take league tables with a degree of scepticism, and look at the data that the school itself publishes, which they should do in a transparent and contextually informed manner.
If you need clarification, be prepared probe more deeply with your prospective schools. It is crucial that the academic environment is right for your child, so that they can reach their full potential.
So when it comes down to it, how can you tell which school is right for your child? It is an obvious answer, but it depends on you, your child and your family. Gather all the information you can and talk it through, but when the time comes do not be afraid to go with your instinct. The right school is the one that is right for the family.
Moving schools is a big adjustment for everyone, so go into it with your eyes open and never be put off asking the difficult questions. This way, I hope you will feel excited for your child’s future at their new school, confident in the knowledge that a robust safety net surrounds them, just in case they should stumble a little along the way.