It would be a mistake to choose a school specifically for its history teacher, rugby coach or new theatre, according to Peter Dix, headmaster of Port Regis, who advises parents to look at the style of the senior school they’re choosing, rather than its individual attributes. ‘Different children suit different environments,’ he says. ‘It’s important to consider the human dimension of the school and the relationships between pupils and teachers.’ But a school’s style and ethos are in part determined by the emphasis on sport, music, drama or academic prowess, he adds, and, therefore, parents should bear this is mind when making their selection.  

Unlike universities, schools don’t tend to have reputations for being strong in a particular academic subject. Pupils at schools such as Eton, Winchester, Wycombe Abbey, Downe House and Cheltenham Ladies’ College, usually achieve a high proportion of A grades in all subjects. The same can be said for the most academic co-educational schools, such as Marlborough, Charterhouse and King’s Canterbury. These schools have fast-paced environments, and if a child is academic and wants to get the most out of education, he or she will thrive, according to Vicky Tuck, headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies’.

But for children who display a particular talent for sport, music or drama, there are a number of schools that can offer a child the maximum opportunities to excel-they’ll be taught by top coaches in world-class facilities and have the chance to perform regularly, travel and network within their speciality. ‘If you have a child with one supreme talent, it’s worth investing in a school that can take that further,’ advises John Witheridge, head of Charterhouse.

If, for example, your child is an exceptional swimmer at prep school, Mr Dix might
recommend the co-educational Millfield School, which lists Olympic gold medallist Duncan Goodhew among its alumni. Mill-field offers more than 30 different sporting opportunities from its world-class facilities and employs 130 sports coaches. ‘Enjoying success in sport, at their own individual level, can often be the key to pupils’ success across the whole school,’ says Sue Woods, director of sport at Millfield. ‘Each year, 25 or more of our students win international honours across a broad spectrum of games, and, in recent years, our school teams have won 14 national championships.’

Another school with a strong sporting reputation is Oakham, which won last year’s The Daily Telegraph/Aviva School Sports Matters’ Independent School of the Year Award, and reached the national final stages in 11 sports. At least 50 matches are played each week in more than 15 sports-old boys include English cricketer Stuart Broad and rugby internationals Lewis Moody and Tom Croft.

Bradfield College is a popular choice for children excelling in drama or music at prep school. According to the headmaster, Peter Roberts, ‘drama, art, dance and music are very strong, which plays to the passion of many families. Some parents don’t want to send their child to a dedicated academy, so they choose Bradfield College, which also has a strong academic and sporting reputation.’ Other performing arts-focussed schools include the more traditional Sherborne School for Boys, which has a drama scholarship sponsored by former pupil Jeremy Irons and counts Hollywood actor Charlie Cox as a former pupil, and Bryanston School, which is internationally renowned for its drama, music and art-and-design departments.

‘Creativity is encouraged in all pupils,’ states headmistress Sarah Thomas. ‘Value has always been attached to freedom of expression in the Arts at the school, and one of our great strengths is variety.’ But most children, according to Mr Witheridge, have a mixture of talents. ‘We’re not a specialist school-and deliberately so,’ he says. Mrs Tuck agrees that there’s a danger in basing your choice of school wholly on your child being good at sport, music, or drama. ‘They can change as they grow up,’ she explains. ‘A school must be able to lead them in different directions. At Cheltenham, we don’t have one kind of girl.’

The headmistress of St Mary’s Calne, Dr Helen Wright, believes that a school should pride itself on dealing with the individual. ‘We’re not particularly sporty, not particularly musical or dramatic, but we have children doing exceptionally well at all of these things.’ St Mary’s, which has just 310 pupils, has an affiliation with RADA and its chamber choir has recently performed on Radio 3, plus it’s ranked highly on the league tables. ‘We’re academically selective, but we take a broader intake than our results would have you believe,’ says Dr Wright. ‘St Mary’s suits any type of child, but the one thing we’re looking for is an openness to learning.’

However, for many children, learning and academia aren’t top priorities. They’d rather be riding their ponies, sailing or shooting, and there are schools to suit them. Bradfield College offers shooting, fishing, riding and outdoor activities such as sleeping rough, and Felstead School organises polo lessons and a horse show. Even the most academic child might not thrive in a traditional establishment, preferring a more liberal school such as Bryanston, which has no uniform, or Bedales, where pupils address their teachers by their first names.

Size is another factor. At smaller schools, such as St Mary’s Calne, the headmistress knows every girl in the school. ‘Some teenagers benefit from feeling “known”,’ believes Dr Wright. Meanwhile, pupils at larger schools, such as Cheltenham Ladies’ College (865 pupils) and Eton (1,300 pupils) are part of a working community.

Larger schools can offer more subjects and more extracurricular activities, which can suit families intent on sending all their children to the same school. That’s why Miranda Donne chose Canford for her daughters: ‘I always wanted to send them to a co-educational school, and Canford is good for the all-rounder. Two are sporty and intelligent and the third is musical and good at drama, so it worked perfectly.’

Mr Dix says parents shouldn’t be put off by geography: ‘I recommend Gordonstoun to certain parents because the distinct style of the school suits their child-the emphasis on service and robustness. But, these days, as most parents want to see their children blow their horn in the concert and play rugby, no one really wants to drive much more than two hours.’

‘It’s the responsibility of every prep school to judge what sort of atmosphere and style will suit the child,’ states Mr Dix. ‘They should have a clear idea about the level of achievement required to pass the entrance exams, and of the child’s capabilities.’ The decision-making process should begin when the child is nine or 10, he says, as many schools have a pre-exam interview. The job of the prep school is ‘to help the parents get as close to the bullseye as possible.’

Thankfully, schools have become more homogenous over the past 20 years, due to regulations and inspections, so ‘there’s more consistent standard of education and care across the board. This means that even if you don’t hit that bullseye, you still end up with a good school’.
 
Making the decision

* Don’t choose a school simply because your child’s friends are going there, or because you, or someone you know, went there
* Consider the house system in a boarding school-mixed ages, year groups and sixth-form houses
* Find out if the school requires a pre-exam interview
* Involve your child in your final decision. When you’re 99% sure of your choice, take your child to visit the school