We've got to start by saying it seems a lot of families are moving out of London right?
“As a result of Covid, many people and in this case parents, have realised they can work from home, so they no longer have to live near work or contend with a difficult commute every day of the week. The dream of living somewhere surrounded by space, with less pressure and a return to the idyllic ‘country childhood’ is on everyone’s mind and many families are grasping the opportunity to change their way of life. It’s not unreasonable to imagine a life in a beautiful house, with more space, surrounded by green fields and fresh air. But a move away from London brings its own worries, and top of that list is what to do about schooling for your children. Prior to the pandemic, we were often approached by families who were looking for something different to the pressure cooker of the London day school, a gentler pace of life and an idyllic setting for their children. In the new world in which we find ourselves, increasing numbers of families are getting in touch with us with these very thoughts. With more and more of us able to adapt our working lives to work from home, it’s becoming much more of a reality.”
What are the main things to think about when moving schools?
“Many clients are understandably nervous. They’ve likely already spent years finding the right school for their child and now the prospect of finding a replacement can feel overwhelming. In short, it very much depends on your child and their age. You know your child better than anyone but re-read any reports from their current school and note down their strengths. Be very aware of their areas for development and/or improvement and be honest with yourself. There is no point aiming to move them to a highly academic school if your child would be better off in a pastoral environment. In particular, think about any particular interests or talents, as this will also help when it comes to looking for the best school.”
What are the key questions to ask yourself when conducting the search?
“There are several. In our view these are the most important: can you see your child flourishing in this new school? Will they be happy? Happy children thrive and what suits one child (or even suited you yourself) might not be right for your son or daughter. Do the school’s values match my own? Sometimes you ‘just know’ the moment you step through the door, but ask yourself if you can imagine your child there, or does something just not feel right? Did the staff seem warm and welcoming? Once you have the answers to these questions, you can start to build your list. Go through the school websites in detail, find out if there are open mornings or – as we are increasingly finding – virtual tours which will at least allow you to get a feel for the school.”
Is it ever too late to make this sort of decision?
“Simply put, yes. It’s always best to move at key points: reception, year three, year seven, year nine and year 12. Never (unless you absolutely have no choice) move your child after year ten or during year 12. If you are not yet ready to move or are still looking for that perfect home, consider weekly boarding for your child until you are in a position to move to a new property. We have helped many families find the right school before they move, and having their children happily settled in school definitely helped the process.”
Is there any advantage to getting children into a top school at the primary stage?
“Not always. This very much depends on the child and the family’s individual circumstances. It is very much a personal decision, but we are always happy to talk about this with specific families.”
Is it best to pick the school, area or find your new house first?
“These decisions should all be linked. Know your child, what your family needs are, and your area of choice. After that, decisions go hand in hand, although we would caveat that with a reminder that the school admissions cycle may begin, for some schools, years in advance of entry, so it may need extra consideration when you’re moving.”
When you visit a school, what should you be looking for?
“Were the children there happy, loud and confident? Were the facilities clean? Were your questions answered honestly? Do the staff seem to enjoy their jobs? What is the policy on social media, behaviour, homework, discipline, bullying? Do the responses align with your own thoughts on these topics? Ask the head what their greatest achievement is and what they’re most proud of. We always advise writing out a list of questions before you go, as it’s very easy to forget things once you are there. If students show you round, make sure you talk to them and ask questions – often they will give you the really honest answers. Ask them to tell you the best thing about the school, and then the worst. It will tell you a lot about the school and the confidence of its students.”
To what extent should children be a part of the decision process?
“In general, it is a sensible approach, but this obviously depends on their age. However, it is always our advice that, as parents and guardians, you need to do the research before sharing anything with your children. Select between three and four schools you would be happy for your child to attend then show them what they can choose. All too often, children will make the decision based on their friends (which is extremely important) or simply down to the colour of the curtains – true story!”
Are there any areas that are particularly popular or competitive?
“The M4 corridor from Ascot to Bristol is increasingly popular. Not only are there direct routes into London, but a fantastic range of schools, from pre-prep through to senior, and from small and personal to large and academic. Top day schools will be competitive and the house prices within a 45-minute radius of the school will reflect that. Boarding schools do not have this consideration, but they are competitive for other reasons. They can be very academically selective, known for their sporting prowess or have an exceptionally strong art department or pastoral team. Shop around, and always ask questions. This is an extremely important decision and you shouldn’t be led by which school is ‘flavour of the month’. The choice has to be right for your child.”
What are ISI reports and why do they matter?
“Independent schools are inspected by the ISI, which is their Ofsted equivalent. The reports they produce are an extremely useful way for you to know what is good (and often what needs to be improved) in a school. Obviously, the more recent the better, but they are an important document for current and prospective parents to read and digest. When you meet the head, think about whether there are unanswered questions from this document they could answer.”
So, in summary, how do you really know if a school is right for your child?
“This is a million-dollar question. First, what was right for you as a child may not automatically be right for your child. Look around and ask yourself, will they be happy here? Can they do all of the extra-circular activities they want to? Will they get the right level of support? As mentioned earlier, it might just be a feeling and something quite intangible, or it may be that the school goes that extra mile to welcome not just your child, but your entire family. One of our clients spoke of just having a gut feeling. Her son had a fabulous taster day and came home with a handwritten note from the head of juniors; the parents loved that their son was made to feel so special. He spoke non-stop on the way home and they knew it was the right fit. In contrast, another client was looking to move her daughter for sixth form and, although they were impressed by the facilities they saw and everyone was very friendly, over the next few days both they and their daughter just couldn’t see her going there. Although it was a top school, they too had a gut feeling that it wasn’t right for her.”
Look out for Jo & Kathryn’s new podcast, PEApodcast, coming soon and offering a range of parental education advice. In the first episode the two discuss the new lockdown and how parents can cope. If you have any other topics you would like to hear about, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, if you want to speak to them about your personal situation, get in touch at HeywoodDeFerrer.com, email email@example.com or call 020 8133 0889.