Choosing the right Senior School
Muddy picks the brains of Christian Saenger, incoming Head of the fabulous Dumpton School, about how best to choose the next steps for your child's education
Christian Saenger takes up the reins as head teacher at Dumpton this term, a co-ed day school for ages 2-13 in the heart of the countryside. This gorgeous prep school has character, heart, and a vibrant music department (oh, and good academics too!) – it’s an enthusiastic school with a strong ecological ethos, where children can be children. But all too soon, parents’ eyes turn towards the next step, and it can be a minefield! So we thought we’d take the opportunity to quiz Christian on how best to choose the right independent Senior School, and what his top tips are. Over to you, Christian…
Choosing the Right Independent Senior School
It is an unfortunate truth of parenthood that at the very moment we may feel we finally have it all ‘sorted’ something else comes along to test us. This is very much true, I am afraid, of our children’s schooling – just as our eldest is happily settled into their first school, the next big decision is sure to slip its way into conversation: ‘so… where are you sending them next?’
It is rarely a straightforward decision (long gone are the days of ‘well, he’ll go where his father went!’) – and certainly not one that a brief article could really do justice to. Your time is likely to be filled by plenty of discussion, time spent on websites, hours flicking through social media or leafing through prospectuses, numerous visits and open mornings and, usually, a fair bit of back and forth when it comes to decision-making. Hopefully, it all ends with a happy consensus between parents, child and your child’s current school about what the right destination, or destinations, might be.
I think it’s important to emphasise here that it should, wherever possible, involve getting the opinions of your current Head, someone who has expertise, up to date knowledge or both your child and the school in question – and crucially – unbiased opinions focused on what is in the best interests of your child. It is worth considering that the above is not always true of the opinions you might hear elsewhere…
Having advised many families navigating this process, I have found that often it is one or two key questions that unlock the door to a decision. I very much hope amidst the list below there are some questions which provide a little more clarity for you.
- What do the numbers say?
For many families wishing to educate their child privately, this is the first hurdle. Do your sums carefully. If things don’t add up, make sure you think early on about catchment areas and admissions criteria of your best local state schools or grammar schools. There are of course more and more opportunities for those without the means to attend Independent Schools. Much is dependent on your circumstances, your child, and the school in question. Speak to your child’s current Head who will be able to have a confidential discussion on this topic.
- Which schools will be the right fit academically?
A crucial question to mull over with your current school and Head. Based on their current attainment, how easily will your child secure a place? And once there, where in their cohort are they likely to sit? What sets will they be in? I usually advise parents to aim for schools where their child will comfortably secure a place and sit happily within the cohort. There are children with the resilience, self-confidence and work ethic who will be motivated in the bottom quartile of the year group, in lower sets, having to fight hard to keep up. For most children however, it could have the opposite effect. Being a teenager is hard enough without having to look around you every day and ask yourself: ‘why is everyone else finding this so easy?’ A content, confident, happy teenager is always the best route to academic success.
- Do you want to transfer at 11+ or 13+?
There is an increasing trend nationally for Independent Senior Schools to take more pupils at 11+ rather than 13+. In some ways this simplifies things – parents can weigh up state, grammar and private options, and girls and boys transfer at the same time. However, if you are still in the position to be able to choose 13+ transfer, then you are in luck. I will admit to considerable bias here, but Year 7 and Year 8 at a Prep School are often two of the most enjoyable, confidence building and rewarding years of a child’s entire education. This can be a whole world apart from spending those two years finding your feet as a small fish in a big pond at a Senior School.
- How important are the facilities and wider opportunities you?
Senior schools these days have some truly outstanding facilities. Theatres. Boathouses. Engineering Centres. Sports Complexes. The same can be said for opportunities, with an almost limitless array of clubs, sporting teams, performances, recitals, trips and tours. Weigh all this up and look for things you can see your child enjoying – but at the same time don’t be blinded by shiny facilities and eye-catching activities. The only thing that matters is: what does the school offer that will make my own child’s experience richer and happier?
- Which schools’ values and ethos chime with your own?
This is an often overlooked point. Look at the websites and seek out the ethos of the school. Read the Head’s welcome or the Vision Statement. What words pop out? Ambition and aspiration? Nurture and empathy? Collaboration and creativity? Traditional and disciplined? Any good school will live by its values, so if you are sympathetic to the values of the school, it is likely that you’ll be sympathetic to the decisions the school takes. If, for example, a challenging matter involving your child comes to light – be it a bullying issue, academic performance, or a difficult relationship with a teacher – when you have shared values, it’s likely that you’ll be able to find common ground and an amicable solution.
- Does it matter if it is a single-sex or co-ed environment?
This is a personal choice, which some parents will feel more strongly about than other. For decades there has been an increasing trend for co-education, which many feel provides a more balanced upbringing, but many fine single-sex options go from strength to strength. If you are weighing up the pros and cons of a single-sex school, make sure you ask yourself the following question: has my child had quality contact and built quality relationships with those of both genders in their lives to date? If the answer is no, seeking out a co-educational environment for adolescence may be a wise move.
- Have you considered boarding? If not, have you checked the commute?
Boarding is not cheap, but for those with the means, it offers huge rewards. Not every child is suited to boarding, but certainly the advent of ‘flexi-boarding’, and, for decades now, a firm commitment to outstanding pastoral care across the sector means that most boarding houses are full of very happy faces. If you are keen on a day school, do take into account the commute. Many parents have no wish to subject their child to a lengthy two-way commute each day – especially when you add at least one, if not two, hours of homework once they arrive home. For others, the right school is well worth the time it takes to get there.
- Is the size of the school important to you?
If you are trying to decide between two schools, this can be a clincher. How many children will be in your child’s class and year group? How big is the school site? The numbers can vary pretty significantly. Some children love the thought of an enormous school, dozens of friends and teachers, and a sprawling site. Others are more comfortable in cosier, familiar environments, with a small network of strong friendships. Some children love to throw their hands up in lessons to ensure they are heard. Others might need to be coaxed more in a smaller, warmer environment.
- Are you choosing this school for you, or for your child?
I have left this question last on purpose. Do ask yourselves: searchingly, and honestly. In a complex decision making process, we are all too easily taken in by the desire to choose the best school. Sometimes we need to gently remind ourselves that this is about choosing the best school for our child.
Want to take a look at Dumpton? Call them for a look around, or book in for their Autumn Open Morning on Friday 4th October, 9.30am-12noon, for Nursery to Year 8 entry. Oh, and you can read our review here.