The ten crucial questions you need to ask yourself as you tour a prospective school, as a parent
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These are the questions I would ask when considering a school for my child. They are not questions with pat answers and take some teasing out. If the answers are brisk or bland, be suspicious.
These are questions that go to the heart of what makes a good school. In many cases, the best way to find an answer is to ask around. Beware parents with a gripe or grudge, but take in a range of people and opinion.
No school can get everything right, or even mostly right. Schools are intricate organisms with many moving parts. On a good day, most of the parts are moving in the right direction. It is particularly on a bad day that you can test whether a school has the vision and the heart to deal with its pupils honestly, fairly and with respect.
1. Does the school genuinely root its culture in good relationships?
This is a very different thing from front-of-house charm. Is eye contact good when you walk around the school? Both pupils and adults? Do teachers greet each other readily and warmly? Do pupils feel they matter? how are they dealt with when they are in trouble? Do former pupils come back and visit?
2. Is there an evident commitment to an all-round education?
Is the school driven and dominated by exam results? Is the co-curriculum built in to the structure of the week, or is it merely extra? Does spiritual life matter as much as rugby?
3. Does the head inspire confidence?
Schools are communities and often work as a team, but the person at the top has significant impact on the direction and tone of the school. Does the head enable teachers to do a proper job or is s/he a control freak? Do pupils know who the head is when s/he walks around the school (this is not as daft a question as it may sound)? Does the head have presence: is there a moment of respectful recognition when s/he enters a classroom? Is the head a systems person or does s/he work through the people around her/him?
4. Is the school committed to the continuing professional development of its teachers?
Does the head talk about the education of teachers as well as pupils when s/he is on the stump selling the school? Is there written evidence readily available to show how training is part of the warp and weft of school life?
5. Are the teachers inspiring?
Do parents come away from parents’ meetings feeling that they have been speaking to switched-on people with a vocation? Do they feel the teachers really know their child and their subject? Do they feel grateful and supported when a teacher is critical about their child?
6. Do the facilities facilitate?
Most schools have glossy brochures. They do not always convey the reality (one gave prominence to a photo of floodlit astro-turf facilities which turned out to be at another school!). even if the theatre is state-of-the-art, what is the drama really like? It may be a multi- million-pound, architect-designed academy, but does it have enough classrooms? A shabby room with an old-fashioned blackboard can still be the home of great teaching.
7. Do the published statistics make any sense?
There is a bewildering array of statistics available these days. An adroit marketing person can ‘prove’ pretty much anything. standardized tables of inspection, such as government league tables, are more reassuring but should come with a very large health warning. What has been measured and how? Do shifts of percentage points mean anything? Would you want a school that is top of a league table anyway?
8. Is there time for pupils to experiment and also have time out?
There is a difference between being productiively busy and busy for busy’s sake. Does every minute of the school day have to be accounted for? Does the school value constructive play at whatever age? What opportunities are there for pupils to participate in things beyond their usual experience?
9. Can a young person learn to be his or her self?
Does the school expect conformity or prefer individuals in a community? Does the culture encourage pupils to tolerate difference and expect older pupils to take a lead and celebrate it? Are you invited to meet and talk with pupils? If you can, find a way to meet pupils away from school. They will reveal far more about their attitudes and about school culture when relaxed.
10. Does the school show off its institutional awards and badges?
If so, avoid. As a rule of thumb the display of badges is in inverse proportion to the quality of the school. And don’t bother with the prospectus: it will be lovely, but they all look the same. Trust your instinct!