How to choose the right UK school
Here Nick Morrison explores the choices facing parents looking at UK schools...
Faced with a bewildering array of schools to choose from, it’s easy for parents to feel overwhelmed. But there are ways of narrowing down the options to increase the chances of finding the right school for your child.
Exam results and league tables
For most parents, a school’s academic performance is a priority. One of the simplest ways of measuring this is through exam results.
Most schools publish their own results both in their prospectus and on their website. For publicly funded schools in England, this information is also collected by the Department for Education and published in the form of league tables.
Similar information is collected for independent schools by the Independent Schools Council (ISC). Although the ISC does not produce league tables, the published results are used by a number of newspapers to compile tables of their own.
These tables typically show the proportion of exam entries that receive the top grades of A or A-star (often written as A*) in both GCSEs, taken at 16, and A-levels, taken at 18.
But there are a number of caveats that need to be borne in mind. One is that not all independent schools submit their results, so will not be included in the tables. Another is that some qualifications are not included. If a school offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, it may not feature in the tables at all.
There are also other measures of academic success that are of interest to parents, and foremost amongst them is university destinations.
Schools are increasingly conscious that this is a key concern for parents, and will often feature information on university destinations on their websites and in their prospectuses, and should also be able to supply it on request.
"...many schools cultivate links with leading universities, and will also offer lessons specifically to prepare students for university entrance tests and interviews..."
While Oxford and Cambridge are the most prestigious UK destinations, places in Russell Group universities, 24 research-intensive institutions, are also highly sought-after.
If a school sends a larger number of students to Russell Group universities, it suggests not just able students and talented teachers, but also a familiarity with admission requirements.
An awareness of what admissions tutors are looking for, beyond exam results, is a considerable advantage. As a result, many schools cultivate links with leading universities, and will also offer lessons specifically to prepare students for university entrance tests and interviews.
UK schools are increasingly sending students to university outside the UK, such as Ivy League colleges in the US and other leading universities worldwide.
A track record of successful applications to these universities suggests a certain level of familiarity with their admissions processes.
But while academic performance may be uppermost in many parents’ minds, it is not the only consideration. Extra-curricular activities are discussed in another article, but for many overseas parents the quality of a school’s boarding facilities are particularly important.
The reality of a boarding school today is a far cry from the traditional image of a long dormitory with beds for 20 or more children.
"Schools themselves are often anxious to ensure there is a balance between nationalities..."
Younger children can expect to be in dormitories of between four and eight beds, while older students, 16-plus, will usually either have a study/bedroom on their own or sharing with one other.
Most boarding pupils will also be grouped into boarding houses, normally of around 20-40 children, supervised by a housemaster or housemistress, often a teacher.
Pupil welfare is a priority for schools, and boarding houses will also have pastoral staff, to look after the children outside school hours and address homesickness and similar issues.
Schools are acutely aware of the importance of communication for children whose parents live overseas, particularly where there is a significant time difference. Pupils will normally be given access to Skype and FaceTime at times that are convenient for parents, regardless of whether the school day has ended or not.
Just under one in 10 pupils at independent schools are non-British, with just over half of them having parents who live overseas. But the numbers and the spread of nationalities will vary widely between schools.
For some parents, a larger number of non-British pupils, and perhaps particularly those of the same nationality, means their child is less likely to feel out of place. Other parents may worry that a larger proportion of overseas pupils means their child will miss out on a ‘British’ experience or may not mix with children outside their own nationality.
Schools themselves are often anxious to ensure there is a balance between nationalities, and there have been reports that some operate informal ‘quotas’ to avoid one particular nationality becoming too dominant.