I always tell parents that choosing a school for your child is, the majority of time, about your gut feel. It is about how the people and the place make you feel: this will be different for everyone, and two people viewing the same school and in front of the same people could have two entirely different perspectives. What is important is what you feel.
But how, in the current climate, do you ascertain what your gut feel is? You can’t be shown around the ins-and-outs of a school; or pop into classrooms unannounced on a tour; or meet children and staff spontaneously as you explore. So often it is not the pre-prepared presentation or the prospectus that tells you what you need to know but the unplanned face-to-face interactions that will reflect your child’s future experiences.
As Heads and schools, we are all ourselves looking for ways to convey this experience in creative and realistic ways but however ingenious the idea or original the concept, it will never replicate being able to spend time in the school. If this is the case, what can you do, what should you look out for and how can you be confident in your decision? I don’t pretend to have the answer for everyone but here are some of my thoughts.
Most schools will be running some sort of online meeting opportunity with senior management teams, boarding staff, pastoral or academic leads etc. Try and work out what it is you really want to know and make sure you ask it. Yes, policies, academic results, class sizes and the like are all important but don’t shy away from what is important to your child: how much outdoor space is there at break? What choices do they have at lunch? Do you run an art/music/sports club after school? What kind of trips do they go on? These kinds of questions often run into tangents where you can expand on conversation topics and really start to explore what the school’s ethos and ideas are away from familiar ‘spiel’.
Try and get feedback from the school community. If you don’t already know someone at the school, there may be groups, sites or social media where you can speak to current parents. If not, ask the school if they can put you in touch with class reps, parent associations or just people in the year group. This will help to garner an opinion from those who have experienced life at the school and may give you an idea of other questions you may want to ask. I would advise to speak to a range of people and take all opinions on board: no two experiences will be the same so it is important to find out what school life is like for a variety of children with their own individual personalities.
In addition, make a priority list of what is really important to you. Is it specific facilities? Academic curriculum? Geographical location or pastoral care? Decide what your non-negotiables are and work from there. Once you have a really clear idea of what it is you want, it will make it easier to compare options or decide if a school really is the right one for you. Do your research on websites and open days and when you speak to the school, consider if their priorities tally with your list and whether they put emphasis on these or can provide the things that are most important.
Finally, I remember when I started a sales career, many years ago now, being told that ‘people buy people’ and this remains the case, particularly when it is a ‘product’ which involves handing over the care of your child. You may get a chance to speak to several members of staff in a variety of roles and they will all help you to build your picture. Despite being online, you can still get a sense of their passion, their interests and their values. Any school is only as good as the people within it so here is where you will still be able to establish your true gut feel and be sure that it is the place you want to be. Ultimately, it is going to be a difficult decision at any time and never more so than in the current climate. Do your research and due diligence, make lists, ask questions, ask more questions and speak to as many people as possible. Then ask a couple of final questions. By then, hopefully you will have a feeling deep down regarding what is the correct decision to make. In my experience, more often than not, you’ll be right.