Finding the right school for your child, like most things in life, is all about asking the right questions. That is why we have put together a list of the 15 key questions to ask a head teacher. Have a look before you take what is arguably one of your most important decisions as a parent, and part with a significant amount of money.
An open question designed to get behind the school’s philosophy or character, and so better understand the ‘feel’ of the school. It provides an insight into how the teachers believe children should be raised and their belief in the role of education in society.
The school’s system of pastoral care is designed to handle all the various non-academic aspects of a child’s education, including drugs / alcohol / behaviour problems and relationship issues, which may be particularly important when selecting boarding schools. This is an open question that will illustrate the care that the school takes of the pupils on a day-to-day basis. If as a parent you were brought up with ‘old school’ methods, it is worth remembering that pastoral care, although a relatively new concept, is firmly established today as a key part of any school’s life.
A key question, as it provides an insight into their definition of success: a good ranking in school league tables or turning out well-balanced, rounded individuals. For example, look to see if the school allows pupils to do A-levels, when they haven’t done the GCSE, and if the school has the freedom to deviate from the national curriculum, and to pursue areas of interest. The question should also highlight the thinking behind the school’s curriculum, its range of subjects, whether they offer GCSEs, A-levels or International Baccalaureate, or a mix of the two, and therefore the school’s academic purpose and ambition.
This question will explore how the school’s academic philosophy is implemented in practice, and provide you with a picture of how your child may progress through school. Ask about how the setting system works: whether all sets cover the same curriculum; whether pupils do move from one set to another. It is important to discover whether the school caters equally well for the brightest and the less able.
In their response to this question, a school would do well to quote the mantra of the financial services industry: past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Nevertheless, it is good to get a detailed picture of where the pupils go on to after school: how many go to one of the top 10 universities, how many go on to gain vocational/technical qualifications or pursue other avenues, for example, to set up a business.
Responses to this question will help you understand whether the school strives for team inclusion, or whether it encourages and caters for individuality. It is useful to find out whether sport is viewed as of secondary importance to academic studies, whether pupils are encouraged to take part in whichever sport they want, or whether the school believes pupils have useful lessons to learn from team sports.
Many schools encourage and facilitate pupils in their interests in the belief that this will make for more interesting, more rounded individuals. Parents need to know what range of activities are available within the school, for example debating societies, and whether the school caters for more specialist interests that may take pupils outside the school, for example community service.
This issue is a new phenomenon, and common to all schools, but it should not be underestimated. Parents need to know how the school deals with issues such as cyber bullying, inappropriate imagery or content. The school needs to demonstrate it is progressive in its handling of these issues, as it is a grey area fraught with dangers. It is important therefore that the school knows how to get ahead of the problem through education and guidance, and solving issues through open dialogue.
In the past, schools used questionnaires to establish a person’s aptitudes and interests, but as we know these were often hardly better than a horoscope. Parents should ask what tools or systems the school uses, whether they have dedicated staff to guide pupils through their academic years, or whether they outsource the job to a professional. It is also worth asking if the school has a work experience programme that helps pupils form ideas about their future careers.
This is an essential question, as entry to the best schools is always competitive. Many schools will typically require the child to sit an entrance exam, typically the 11+ or Common Entrance, and possibly also attend an interview. This interview is an opportunity for the school to establish whether the child has the attributes to become an asset to the school. They will probably be looking to see the child’s character, as some schools look for the more gregarious types, while others will favour, for example, independent thinkers.
This is an excellent question for shining a light on those characteristics that the school thinks will enable a child to thrive at the school, which in turn will reflect on the character of the school itself.
This question aims to establish whether there are any problems in staff retention – in other words, whether the school is a ‘happy ship’. It is a question that is also a window into other issues – for example, does the school invest in the teachers’ development, are the teachers fulfilled in their roles, are they engaged – and ultimately reflects on the ability of the head to manage the school successfully.
This question highlights the school’s priorities, and the areas of improvement the head teacher is working on, be it a new building, sports pitch, changes to the curriculum or new programmes for personal development.
Where relevant, parents want to know that day pupils’ experience of the school (with a majority of boarders) does not differ from that of the boarders, and that day pupils are able to participate in all the school’s extra-curricular activities. Parents might also want to know if the school has the flexibility to allow day pupils to stay overnight, perhaps to experience boarding, and how this would be managed.
This is a question that gets to the heart of the school, its main attractions and how it compares with its competitors. It is an excellent question, for two key reasons: firstly, the discussion may result in a useful list of competitor schools, with their key brand attributes. For example, some schools will talk about their traditions and past alumni, while others will focus on their pupils’ plans for the future. Secondly, the school sets out its own key brand attributes, those that it prizes above all others, which speak volumes about the school and its values. And, let’s not forget, these are the values that will be imparted to your child.