School visits: questions and answers

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by Adrian Underwood, Education Consultant

School visits can take many forms. They can involve meeting the Head or perhaps attending an open day. Whatever the format, the first meeting is crucial so if possible always try to visit a school on a normal day. If it goes well, follow it up with an open day visit. Further visits can then be arranged; for example, potential boarders should have the opportunity to stay overnight.

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The initial look round is absolutely vital. It is where a parent and their child start to assess whether they fit the environment (and whether it fits them). It is where prospective parents and boarders decide whether they like the location, the ‘buzz’ and the Head. Open days can involve a talk about the school, usually by the Head, sometimes hands-on classes for prospective boarders while parents chat to senior staff and current boarders, and then current pupils lead a tour of the school. 

All this should be followed by an opportunity to ask any further questions.

As a prospective parent visiting a boarding school with your child, you should have the opportunity to spend time with the Head, a boarding housemaster/housemistress and some boarders. Above all, set out to enjoy your visit. You will find the vast majority of boarding schools enjoy welcoming prospective boarders and their families and boarders enjoy talking about their school and their house. Here are some useful questions to ask, particularly if you found the boarding school’s website, prospectus and accompanying information did not cover everything you wanted. 

The list is not exhaustive: use it as a guide and adapt the questions to your own requirements – you will have to be selective, given the relatively short time available. Covered here:

Academic issues

Q: What are the entry requirements? Is our child likely to obtain a place, and when?  

A: This is a crucial initial administrative matter. Remember the majority of places available will be for the main ages of entry: normally at 7, 8 and 11 for a prep school and at 11, 13 and 16 for a senior school. You need to know whether to have alternative schools lined up, and at what age the school recommends entry and has places available.

Q: How do you organise your 14 to 19 curriculum?

A: Larger schools may offer both A Levels and the International Baccalaureate, but smaller ones will find this more difficult and expensive. Schools may also offer the Cambridge Pre-U Diploma or the Advanced Diploma. Most schools will be attempting to broaden their sixth-form curriculum, introducing more skills-based courses. 

Q: What are the school’s plans for examination reforms?

A: GCSEs and A Levels have been reformed introducing linear programmes with examinations at the end of two years. The standalone one-year AS qualification no longer counts towards the full A Level. In the National Curriculum mathematics focuses on problem solving and mental arithmetic and English on producing good quality written communication and the comprehension of a range of texts including those from our English literary heritage. Schools should be able to explain how they have approached these reforms.

Q: Can we see your sixth-form examination results and GCSE/standard grade results for the past three years? Also, can we see details of the school’s position in the league tables and the number of places obtained at Oxbridge (the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge) and at other universities? 

A: League tables need to be treated with caution, as they do not give a rounded picture of the school’s real success or failure in enabling pupils to reach their full potential. IGCSEs are no longer included in the UK Government’s school performance tables and so the tables do not reflect IGCSE performance. The annual tables, or better still the subject and pupil point score averages over the past three years, can be used to identify trends within a school, and most schools accept that these tables are used for obtaining comparisons. All the information should be available in a form that is understandable and helpful. These, the Oxbridge results and the list of university entrants will give you an indication of pupils’ attainment and progress, particularly with reference to those at the top of the ability range, and will illustrate the school’s success at helping pupils realise their academic potential.

Q: How does the school approach the teaching of English, sciences, mathematics, modern languages, and information and communication technology (ICT) for the most and least able students?

A: These are key subjects, and your child could be at either end of the ability range. It is important to know how a school responds to individual abilities and needs. It is also important to find out how subjects fit into a broad, well-balanced curriculum, and how essential study skills, particularly in information and communication technology (ICT), are being developed and integrated.

Q: Our child has a particular interest in sport/music/drama/art. How will the school get the best out of them?

A: This question is aimed at finding out which extra-curricular activities are offered, and how the school encourages participation in them. Ask about the activities that interest your child most, or in which your child has a particular talent.

Q: What is the school’s policy on careers education and applications to further and higher education, and with which professions does it have particularly strong links?

A: Good careers advice is an essential part of education. Providing advice is a crucial role for the school. Careers departments should have an established local support network of contacts in the main professions, who are able and willing to pass on the benefits of their experience. Again, a list of recent leavers’ university places will provide a valuable indicator of the school’s strengths and successes.

Rules and regulations

Q: What are the key rules for boarders in the houses?

A: A question for the boarding staff, as this is aimed at finding out as much as possible about the regime of the boarding house.

Q: What is the weekend programme for boarders and what activities are on offer?

A: A question for the boarding staff, as this is aimed at finding out as much as possible about what boarders can do at weekends and the school’s ability to offer wider cultural and social opportunities for its boarders. Also, do ask the question about numbers staying in the house over a typical weekend and what percentage are overseas boarders as compared to UK-based boarders.

Q: What is the school’s policy on use of the internet and mobile phones?

A: You should feel confident the school has realistic and sensible policies in place to monitor internet usage. Similarly, mobile phones can be useful, not least as a means of keeping in touch with parents, so long as rules on their use and security are in place and put into practice.

Q: What are the school’s policies on alcohol, drugs and smoking? Is the school facing any particular problems in any of these areas at present?

A: Every boarding school will have a policy in place to cover these matters. The real issue is how they are dealt with, and whether the individuals concerned learn from their mistakes. This is a chance to consider the school’s personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) programme, its health and safety and disciplinary policies, to look into the medical and counselling services available, to discover what happens if serious offences are committed, and to find out on what grounds a pupil may be temporarily or permanently excluded, and when this last happened. You should feel matters would be dealt with consistently, sympathetically but firmly, and, above all, fairly.

Boarding life and pastoral care

Q: How can I be confident my child’s interests are protected at all times?  

A: Schools are subject to rigorous child welfare legislation, regulation and inspection, which is entirely right and proper. The interests of the child are at the heart of an independent education. All schools should have a Safeguarding (child protection) Policy and all staff should receive training in child protection. The school’s latest ISI or Ofsted report should provide further details.

Q: How does the school work with children who are shunned by their peers? 

A: The school should be able to identify these children at a very early stage. Schools should be able to explain the measures they take to deal with this. Children are more likely to interact if they are near each other and engaged in the same activity. Schools should provide high quality pastoral care and support to all children.

Q: Who is the first staff member we should see if there is a problem? 

A: The right member of staff can deal with many problems immediately. Knowing who that is and developing confidence in them is very important. Most boarding schools have very good pastoral care and counselling systems, and knowing how these operate is very important. This question will also allow parents to find out how well the school communicates with parents, and what opportunities there are for visits to the school to meet your child’s housemaster/housemistress, teachers and other parents.

Q: What are the bathroom facilities like?

A: School bathrooms range from individual en-suite arrangements to communal shower areas with private shower cubicles. You should be satisfied that the shower cubicles offer personal privacy.

Q: Do boarders have access to Skype or similar communication platforms?

A: These platforms provide a very cost-effective method of keeping in touch with your child. 

Q: How good is the catering? Do the boarders have an input into the choice of menu offered?

A: These are really questions for the boarder showing you around. The general standard of school catering nowadays, though, is remarkably high and schools are far more conscious of the need to maintain healthy diets. On an overnight taster stay, your child will be able to assess the quality of the food.

Q: What medical arrangements are in place?

A: Obviously, it is important to know what happens in the case of either illness or an emergency or accident. Schools should inform you about the medical staff and the medical facilities. It is also wise to check on insurance arrangements, particularly for sporting fixtures, expeditions and trips, both at home and abroad.

Q: How important is the role of chapel in school life? 

A: The chapel may be central to the boarding school life. While not every pupil may be expected to participate fully, a great deal can be achieved through chapel, most notably its important role in SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) education and, particularly, in helping to develop pupils’ life skills and a sense of care, concern and respect for others in the whole community

Financial issues

Q: What extras can we expect to pay? 

A: Extras vary according to a child’s extra-curricular involvement. The Head and school prospectus should make it clear at the outset what additional expenses and development costs can be expected. There is normally no reduction in fees for periods of study leave, but there is no compulsion for a boarder to be at home for study leave.

Q: How do you finance capital expenditure and what are your development plans?  

A: Schools need to keep pace with national developments in education, so capital projects will always be on the agenda. Some of these may be funded by donations or an appeal. Others may come out of fees. The Head should be open about future plans and financing options.

The governing board

Q: What is the role of the school’s governors?

A: In boarding schools the governors have the ultimate responsibility for all aspects of the school. Although they may delegate the day-to-day operations to senior leaders of the school (for example, the Bursar and finance team usually manage financial matters), in law the governors are regarded as having overall accountability for the management of the school. This is why most governing bodies have sub-committees to monitor specific areas of the school. The most common of these committees are education, finance, welfare and health and safety. Governing bodies may also have committees for boarding, governor succession, investments and audit.

Governing bodies are also required to monitor all policies (and their implementation) in regard to the National Minimum Standards for Boarding Schools and, for independent schools, the Independent Schools’ Standards Regulations. Governing bodies increasingly delegate governors to monitor specific areas of the school. It is common to have a Safeguarding (Child Protection) Governor, a Staff Appointments Governor, a Boarding Governor and a Health and Safety Governor. 

Governors give their time and specialist expertise voluntarily and a good rapport between governors and the Head and the senior management team is essential for a well-run school. When inspecting governance, inspectors will expect governors to know the school well and have strategies for understanding the school beyond reading reports from senior leaders

After your visit

After your visit, try to discuss with your child your thoughts about the people you met, what you were told and what you saw. Then ask yourself a number of follow-up questions:

The most important consideration

Over the years I have advised many friends and acquaintances on choosing a boarding school. The key message is to listen to your child’s views. Despite what the media still write, very few children are ‘sent to boarding school’. It is a child’s choice to be a boarder and they should have a big input into the choice of school. By all means ensure that the chosen school could support your child in developing their particular skills. Just because your great friends have agreed on a boarding school for their child, that does not mean it is necessarily right for your child. The greatest mistake I have seen in terms of the choice of boarding school is when a parent is fixated on a particular school and does not consider their child’s needs.

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