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Choosing a new school?

The most important things to look for in a school...and nope, exam results are not one of them! Here's the insider scoop on how to choose the best school for your child from Head of Stonar School, Matthew Way.

Choosing a school for your child has to be one of the most important decisions of your parenting life, but have you considered going down the independent route? Sure, many of us would love to send our precious darlings to the very best of independent schools – just think of those rolling driveways, acres and acres of playing fields, indoor swimming pools and state-of-the-art science labs. But what is independent schooling really about, and is it right for your family? We pick the brains of Matthew Way, Head of Stonar School, an all-through day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 3 – 18 based in Atworth, near Bath.

At Stonar, what are the benefits of an independent education? What are the benefits of an all-through school?

Well, all schools are different from across all sectors, so forgive me for focusing on what I feel is the benefit of my school. Grounded in academic excellence, we offer a tailored, child-focused, holistic education that has the flexibility to get the best out of individual pupils. Alongside this, we offer a breath-taking choice of sporting and extra-curricular activities. These opportunities allow pupils to find things in which they can build expertise, and confidence. That might be on the hockey pitch, in the music rooms, in the Cookery Club or the Robotics Club. Breadth of opportunity and encouragement to get involved and try new things are key features of independent schools and Stonar.

All through schools feel like a family, but also the Prep School benefits from the facilities and specialist teaching of a bigger school. Our secondary school subject specialists teach our Prep School pupils Music, Drama, Sport and Languages.

A common misconception is that private schools are only for the very wealthy, but how does this play out in reality?

Many of our parents are working families, where both parents work hard to afford the school fees. In addition, we have a generous bursary and scholarships scheme, with some scholarships offering 100% off the fees. Of course, we need to ensure that we have the income to run and grow the school. We have class sizes of 15 and so that means a significant teaching salary bill, but independent schools are more accessible in terms of cost than many parents may think.

Stonar was founded in 1895 in Kent by a couple who wanted to run a School that educated differently. The founders had a strong pioneering spirit and created a School that promoted equality in educational opportunity, offered an outdoor education and attracted a diverse range of pupils who all benefitted from a focus on the individual. How does this continue today?

I think that we demonstrated our pioneering and innovative approach very effectively over the last few months when we embarked on a remarkably successful online learning programme. In addition, we retain our character as an outdoor, participatory, diverse school. We are a jeans and jumper school with our own Adventure Scouts group, our own Pony Club, and with students from all backgrounds and nationalities. We are a tolerant, hard-working, school where every pupil is known and where we actively work to remove perceived barriers, not least in terms of personal confidence. I think our founders would be proud of the school today that very much bears the hallmarks of their vision.

What about choice? Heading down the independent route offers significantly more choice than in the state system but what does that really mean?

I disagree that the independent sector offers more choice. Across all sectors of education, there is a huge range of choice and many good schools. Stonar offers parents a choice among many good schools, independent and state. The key is finding the right school for your child and the only way to do that is to visit and find out in person what they are like. You will know when you are in a school that fits your child – it is just a parental sixth sense that kicks in when you know it is right.

Do private schools have a monopoly on enthusiastic, talented and inspired teachers?

Of course not – there are many wonderful teachers across all sectors. What we feel is that we offer our excellent teachers the opportunity to focus on the learning of their pupils and the time to give each pupil the support they will need in different ways and at different times.

How is the individual encouraged to flourish in an independent school?

For me it is about being known. The confidence and esteem that is derived from mattering and feeling like you are important to your teachers gives children the platform to express themselves as individuals. I think our pupils feel, ‘I matter, I have a voice, it will be heard, I have things to say and the confidence and forums to say them.’

How do parents work out which school will be the right fit academically?

I am always bemused, and somewhat amused, by what it means when a school is described as ‘academic’. Parents should focus on choosing a school that will ensure the happiness and fulfillment of their child, then success will follow. Of course, due diligence is required on the academic rigour and results, but raw academic results often only explain how academically selective a school is at 11 or 13. Value added data is probably more helpful, but all statistics are more like a lamppost to a drunken man, more for leaning on than illumination!

Stonar School

Is it important to find a school whose values and ethos chime with your own?

Absolutely, but we are all very good at rolling out meaningful lists of values. Ask what is behind those values, why they are the values of that school and how those values are represented in the everyday life of the school. Ours are, ‘Be Kind, Work Hard, Be Involved and Shape the World’. As the pupils and staff will testify, I happily talk for hours about why these are our core values!

You are a small school. Is the size of the school important? What about class sizes?

The size of our school, around 350 pupils, does mean that we all know each other well. It really is like a large family and the combination of a culture of care among all staff, our spacious, rural site and our size leads to a school with an extraordinary and unique charm. I think a good example of how being a small school helps us is with the university application process. Each one of our Sixth Form tutors, working alongside our Head of Sixth Form, only has a handful of pupils to guide through the university process at any one time. This means that a huge amount of time can be committed to the guidance of each individual pupil to help him or her make the right choices for them on the right courses. This year all of our pupils achieved places at their first choice universities, 65% of which were to the leading Russell Group universities. These are statistics that I really do think tell the story.

Should parents look past academics to ‘soft’ skills – problem solving, empathy, communication? How does Stonar do this?

As an employer, I am often looking at CVs and short-listing for interview. Other employers will also be familiar with the heart-sinking moment that you realise that the person who looked so good on paper is deeply disappointing in person and you are about to spend 30 minutes of your life on an interview you know is a waste of time! Our tutorials, external speakers, environment education lessons, our public speaking and debating programme involving all pupils, among other things are all aimed at ensuring that our pupils are even more impressive in person than they are on the strong CV that got them the interview in the first place.

How important are the facilities? Tell us about yours.

It is important to have comfortable and well-equipped classrooms and specialist teaching spaces and to have the sports and other facilities required to deliver the extra-curricular programme that I have already mentioned. Independent schools do seem to be locked into a ‘facilities race’, but we are very fortunate to have excellent facilities for a small school. As an historian, I enjoy the comment of Admiral Nelson when inspecting one of his ships. When he had completed the inspection, he remarked that “I see much shining metal and wood, but few shining faces”. At Stonar it will be the ‘shining faces’ that will impress you the most.

Stonar’s equestrian centre is a key feature of the school. Can you tell us more about it, please?

We are rightly proud of our Equestrian Centre and our place as the UK’s leading equestrian school. We have 35 of our own horses and ponies, employ 14 staff and have stabling for 65 with many children bringing their horse or pony to school. Our facilities allow pupils to learn to ride at Stonar or to be in our Academy as one of our top riders competing on a national circuit. Around half the Senior School pupils ride, as do many in the Prep School as well. Riding children are outdoorsy, hardworking, good at taking responsibility and resilient and they contribute fully to our sporting programme as well as riding.

Stonar is part of Globeducate, a forward-thinking international group of schools. How does this benefit pupils?

The world is changing at an incredible pace. We must prepare our pupils for jobs that have not been created, for technologies that have not been invented and to solve problems that have not yet been anticipated. All of these things will take place in a global context. Being part of the Globedcuate group exposes our pupils to other cultures and languages on a regular basis, both in person or at one of the many events held at our sister schools and online. For example, language lessons regularly take place with classes from schools in Spain and France and just before lockdown, we attended the Globeducate Music festival In Bilbao. Indeed, we teach Spanish every day in our Prep School and modern languages is the fastest growing subject in the Senior School, very much against the national trend.

We believe that this helps our pupils to build their own understanding of the world, to think about their own values and to challenge ignorance and intolerance. We want to prepare children to become global citizens who can shape the world and being part of Globeducate helps provide the opportunities for these things to happen.

How has the school fared through the extraordinary first half of 2020?

Our Summer@Stonar online learning programme was a great success. Pupils are up to date with their schemes of work and many pupils have enjoyed the opportunity to talk a step back from their usual hectic lives and to spend more time on their work. Head’s Commendations and Merits for academic work were up to record levels last term. Alongside this, we enjoyed the innovation of sort on Zoom, our clubs and activities programme such as cookery, dog agility and guinea pig care and the weekly family quiz. We had several pupils join the school during the term to access our online provision and we have seen strong demand for the school in recent months because our parents have been delighted by the provision of live lessons throughout the full school day and they have told other people about it.

Read our review of Stonar School here. They are now offering limited and pre-booked school tours of the Nursery, Prep and Senior School, in line with social distancing requirements. In addition their Admissions team and academic staff are also available on the phone and for virtual meetings via Zoom and Skype. Register at www.stonarschool.com/admissions/open-mornings-school-visits.

Stonar School, Cottles Park, Atworth, Wiltshire, SN12 8NT, Tel:01225 701740, www.stonarschool.com

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