Aside from your house, committing to a secondary private school education for your child is probably the biggest investment you are ever going to make. It is therefore, a good idea to come up with a list of criteria that are important to you that goes beyond A Level and GCSE results and being swept up by what everyone else in your child’s class is applying for this year. Having worked in a leading London Primary School and as a tutor for over 8 years it is extraordinary to see how quickly schools go in and out of vogue just because it is the most popular child in the class’s first choice. With the benefit of having looked around many, many London day schools here are some of my top factors to consider.
With all the information we now have on mental health this has to come at the top of the list. Every school that you visit will say that ‘happy’ children are their top priority, but the reality is some institutions put a lot more emphasis on wellbeing than others. At one very illustrious boys’ school I visited the boy showing me round told me he was bullied, but ‘it didn’t matter because it was only mild.’ As a mother of one very small boy this broke my heart. Ask the child showing you round whether there is anyone they can talk to if they have a problem. The response varies dramatically. Girls’ schools seem to be quicker off the mark with mental health. At St James’ School for Girls, meditation has been integrated into the school day with 5 minutes set aside for practice first thing in the morning and after lunch. Whether this has a significant impact or not, you cannot help but be struck by the happy and caring atmosphere of this school as soon as you enter the building.
It may sound obvious but the Head has an enormous influence on the atmosphere and direction of the school. I would highly recommend going to listen to them speak at an Open Day as it can completely transform your understanding of the school. You might be surprised to find that the school you are considering, with the amazing results, now has a terribly dry Headmaster who has you on your iPhone 5 minutes into his talk or that the school that was set up three years ago with the slightly dodgy A Level results is being run by someone extraordinarily charismatic who has a clear plan for success that entirely wins you over.
Schools in Central London are always going to be at a disadvantage. However, some feel more cramped, and frankly depressing at times, than others. Schools desperate to maximise space on small campuses frequently put classrooms in the basement. However, while some are large and well-lit, many are dark and dingy with a few having no windows at all, resembling soulless boxes that I wouldn’t want to step into, let alone spend hours of my day in. When you visit a school look beyond sleek interiors and newly painted walls. Are the classrooms bright and spacious? Is there even a small amount of outside space that your child can access every day to get some natural light between lessons? Outside of Zone 1, you will find some schools with an amazing amount of outside space, giving them the feel of a country prep schools. The facilities and grounds of places like Emmanuel, The Harrodian and North London Collegiate are spectacular.
Make sure you do the journey yourself and factor in how many hours your child will be sitting on public transport every week. Assess whether it is worth them going to that amazing school across the river if it means they are sitting on the tube for over 12 hours a week.
For whatever reason, you may want to have a significant involvement in your child’s school life. This may be because you are concerned about their mental wellbeing, you need to keep an eye on their academic attainment or because it is a great way to meet new friends and create a community for your family. Schools have different approaches to this with some keeping involvement to Parent’s Evenings twice a year, while others see you as a partner in your child’s learning. At Kew House, for example, parents have their own café which they can go to whenever they want to talk to their child’s teacher.
Almost all children attending a private London day school will be exceptionally privileged. However, even in these rarefied circles some schools will have a more economically diverse intake than others. Consider what is right for your child and your family circumstances. Will they be able to keep up with the lifestyle of their peers? Remember that many schools also offer bursaries should this make private school a more achievable option.
One final thing to remember, education in London is big business. Make sure you plump for the school that is focused on the children and not on the bottom line.
Chloe is both a parent and an experienced teacher having worked in a popular inner London independent school. She specialises in 11+ preparation for the most competitive senior schools and assessing for all entrance levels from 8+ onwards. Chloe is the Junior and Senior School Consultant at SH Nursery Consultancy.