This coming Friday 2nd February is the official deadline for acceptances of 4+ offers at many schools. It is a tough time and parents worry a lot about making the right choice. In surprisingly many cases when parents contact me about schools, they actually have a clear favourite – they love the kids, the Head, the inspection report looks great and so forth – but then someone has told them school B that also offered them a place is officially “better” or more prestigious. They may not have liked it when they visited or it may be a 30 minutes drive from their house, but the other school is supposed to be “better”, so would they be foolish to turn it down?
The beauty of London is that we do have so much choice, and many families are relatively flexible in terms of location, so I see more and more parents applying all over the place, and then having to choose between schools that are located in Harrow, Notting Hill, Putney and Dulwich. And people ask me “but which school is the best? It does not matter where!”. It is hard to believe that it does not matter where, given that most people have friends in certain neighbourhoods and jobs to commute to. You will also find that some schools outside of London are excellent academically but may be filled with kids from families who know each other since generations, which may make it hard for the child to fit in.
The other downside of families applying from all over the place is that a small number of sought after schools are suddenly getting a ridiculous amount of applications, as many as 300 or 400 applications for 30 or 40 places. Of course, many people will be disappointed. I feel it is really important people understand what a random process it can be when the children involved are 3 or 4. You simply cannot count on your child getting in, no matter how brilliant they are, and I always advise parents to have a non-selective backup choice so they don’t need to stress.
In my observation, non-selective schools with smaller class sizes can actually be a fantastic choice for a wide range of kids. They work very hard to get the best out of each child, whereas highly selective schools can be relatively laid back, as the kids are so advanced when they start school anyway. When you visit excellent non-selective schools and look at what their kids do, you will be surprised to see many of their children working at the same if not a higher level than kids in schools that select by 4+ assessment, so don’t think a school is not good for bright children just because it is non-selective.
When you are already talking about very good schools to begin with, it is impossible to say which one is “better” as an outsider. I have been asked in recent days if Falkner House or Kensington Prep is better, if Haberdasher Aske’s is better than Latymer Upper, and if Westminster Under is better than St Paul’s Junior? There is no obvious answer to these questions without looking at the child, first and foremost, and family circumstances.
In summary, what I recommend parents to focus on would be the following:
- your personal impression of the school during your visits: did the kids look calm and happy? Were they enthusiastic and confident? Were the staff friendly and at ease? How did they interact with the children, each other and the parents?
- speak to parents with kids at the school. I must add that it is very personal and you can get completely opposite stories about the same school, so take these stories with a grain of salt, but if a particular complaint comes up many times, there is probably an issue.
- check the inspection report. It is not everything but it will give you confidence and highlight any issues there might be
- look at the leavers’ destinations. Don’t get too hung up with exact numbers and percentages, as they vary from year to year and reflect the level of selectivity of a school as much as the quality of teaching, but you would at least want to see some kids moving on to the sort of senior schools you might be aiming for eventually
- check the sibling policy. If you have a younger child, be aware that not all schools offer automatic entry for siblings.
Good luck making that decision! If it makes you feel better, I can assure you that once you are inside a school, you will realise that it is all about the 11+ (or the 7+ if your child is at a pre-prep), and then one day you will realise that what really matters is what university you go to rather than which school you went to, and then one day your child will realise they still need to get a job one day, so there is a long way to go. When I was last choosing between two schools and fretting over the decision, I realised after studying both carefully that my daughter would probably end up at the same secondary school no matter which of these two prep schools she came from, so I chose the one that is close to my house and where I knew she would be happy, and that is the approach I would recommend most people to take.