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Moving on: are children today given too much say in the choice of senior school?
In a society where places at high ranking senior schools are hotly contested, is it right that parents are allowing their children to become increasingly involved in the primary to senior school decision making process – ultimately leading to the potential for many to be unnecessarily exposed to the risk of disappointment? Sean Skehan, headmaster of Barrow Hills School, Surrey, discusses the issue and what he tells parents...
Times have certainly changed.
Turn the clock back to the current generation of parents’ experience
of moving onto senior school and the majority of us were more or less presented with a fait accompli as
to our next school. Attendance at endless Open Evenings and planned Admissions events simply wasn’t
an option. Your future was in the hands of your parents and changing schools was very far removed from the protocols in place today.
One of the over-riding reasons for this has to be popular modern-day parenting techniques. The need to be a child’s friend, rather than their parent, has seen a significant shift towards providing our children with an alarming range of choices and options in life, which naturally ex- tends to which senior school they’d ‘like’ to attend.
At Barrow Hills, we are 100% against pushing children towards a school with which they absolutely feel no affinity – our over-riding priority is and always will be, the happiness and well-being of our pupils. But I can’t help but feel that this trend for ‘empowering’ children to have a say in so many decisions has gone too far and is not necessarily adding to their overall contentment.
As parents, we have a responsibility to help our children find their way
in life but with that comes a duty to take some of the angst and confu- sion away from some of the big de- cision making. As mature adults with the benefit of undoubtedly facing our fair share of challenges, we are better placed to begin the schools process on behalf of our children and engineering their valuable input at the right point in time.
Our advice would be to recognise that the factors which might influ- ence a child’s choice of school, are not necessarily the ones that count most! So, the fact that your child’s best friend may be attending xyz school, or the amazing lunch that was served, or even the sought after
uniform – while these are all impor- tant considerations, it would be safe to say that they are not the criteria on which an adult’s decision making would be based.
So how should a parent go about choosing the right senior school
for their child? Firstly, we would recommend limiting the number of Open Days that you attend together. Parents should put together an ini- tial short-list of appropriate schools and then these can be discussed as
a family. Avoid getting into the un- fortunate situation where your child falls in love with a school that you have already decided is not right for them. While Open Days can be use- ful, we would strongly advocate vis- iting a school on a normal day, away from all of the activities specifically designed to appeal to prospective parents and their offspring. Spend some time witnessing the behaviour of children at the end of the school day, do they seem cheerful? Do they appear motivated and stimulated
by the lessons they have attended? Are they in a mad rush to leave the school premises? Most importantly, are there plenty of smiles and happy faces?
Acknowledge that a school’s reputa- tion is governed by the people
that run it on a day to day basis. Ask friends and colleagues about their personal experiences of the school and its teaching staff. Does a genuine warm and welcoming com-
munity await your child? How easy is it to access teachers to discuss any issues? Were they satisfied with how staff dealt with any problems?
While friendship groups that have been established at primary school are important, recognise that these may not necessarily continue in a senior school setting. Aside from the obvious fact that as children mature, their choice of friends may change, there is also the practicality of larger senior schools putting children into different houses / sets so that in reality, existing friendships may be very difficult to maintain. Moving schools is a natural time to forge new friendships and sometimes, putting your child into a situation where he / she feels the need to be loyal to their old friends can prove stifling rather than reassuring.
Don’t be tempted to put your child through the stress of sitting entrance exams unless it is for a school that you / they believe to be absolutely one that ticks all the right boxes. Too often, children are taking entrance tests for a school that will only ever be the ‘fall back option’ and that is not in anyone’s best interests.
If your senior school choice is a boarding school rather than day school, your child’s input does be- come more critical as there will need to be greater emphasis on identify- ing a setting where your child will be comfortable and at home.
Ultimately the most important point to bear in mind is to choose a school exclusively with YOUR child in mind and to base your decision making on finding the right fit for the indi- vidual needs of your son / daughter. Be realistic about the chances of being awarded a place; if their scores are scraping the border line for the requirements set by the school do you really want your child to be faced with seven years of struggling in lessons?
Outside of the academic require- ments it is also key for parents to feel that the ethos of the school matches the values they hold dear. Regardless of any reputation for outstanding success, if the school does not share the same belief system that your child has been brought up with, then it will never provide the right environment for them to thrive.
Prep schools which offer a seamless transition to a sister senior school have their advantages. Obvious benefits include the child already knowing the school and be-
ing familiar with it (it is probable that the schools will have already undertaken some shared initiatives) and of course, a similar ethos. It is also quite likely that there will be an automatic entry opportunity, which removes the stress associated with entrance exams. However, tempting as it is to opt for the uncomplicated route, parents do need to carefully examine if this is the best choice for their child, not just the easy one!
The leap to senior school is always going to be a challenge. The role
of a parent is to ensure that the move represents an informed choice by providing the voice of reason and understanding based on one simple fact – an innate insight into the child’s needs and abilities and
a desire for them to thrive because they are happy and secure.
This means stepping up to being a child’s best parent. Not their best friend.
    20 Independent Schools Magazine
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