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The 8 most important things to look for in a school

... and nope, exam results are not one of them! Here's the insider scoop on choosing the best school for your child from Alastair Speers, inspiring Head of Sandroyd School.

As Editor of Muddy Wilts, I get to visit a lot of schools, but school Open Days are a bit of an enigma to me, despite having gone to a million of them with various different Mudlets. The experience can be incredibly opaque, with fresh-faced children performing near perfect renditions of Handel’s Messiah, but it’s tricky to get more than a broad impression of the school in such a limited time. You know the drill – a head’s upbeat introduction; über-confident speeches from head boys and girls about how fantastic the school is and how all children will become happy, successful and quite possibly leader of the planet should they come here; some crowd-pleasing explosions in the chemistry lab; and a couple of students showing you around who have clearly been briefed to charm your children at all costs (they will succeed). It’s not a lot to go on when it’s your precious child’s schooling is on the table.

So how to make these Open Days count a bit more, how to read between the lines, or expose potential issues? Help! Firstly, check out my snoopy school reviews – seriously, they’ll really help! Secondly, read this brilliant advice from Alastair Speers, Head of Sandroyd School in Wilts. He has two children himself too, so you’re in good hands. Over to you Alastair.


Where do you start when looking for a Prep School?

Logistics and the educational offering tend to be the main driver when shortlisting schools. If you are looking for a day place, then a 30 minute travel radius is probably the maximum you should look at, otherwise too much time is wasted in the car every day. If you are looking for a school that offers boarding, then travel distances can be further, so it is worth considering what percentage of the pupils are also boarders. Flexi-boarding allows a hybrid of these two factors.


Once you have narrowed your selection down to a shortlist of schools, start to look further into the education on offer. Is the school solely focussed on academics, or do they provide a sensible mix of academic education with a healthy extra-curricular programme? How important is competitive sport in the school day? Are music and singing valued; how creative can your child be? What importance is given to the performing arts? Will the school inspire your child and fuel their natural enthusiasm?


Are there opportunities for your child to experience disappointments, genuine leadership and, of course, successes? How does the school build self-esteem, resilience and teamwork? Is mindfulness part of the curriculum, or is it an ‘add on’? How do they build a child’s confidence to prepare them for Senior Schools? Do they actually achieve this or is it just well marketed!?


How early should you start looking for a prep school? 

This entirely depends on which area of the country you are looking in. London and the South East will require earlier reconnaissance. The best thing to do is to narrow down your selection of schools at least two years before committing and then phone the schools to enquire about their process, application times and the best time to visit. This process can of course be shorter depending on vacancies and available places.


When is the best time to view a school? On an open day or on an ordinary day during a bespoke visit?

A bespoke tour is often better, but this is not always possible to arrange and is dependent on the availability of both you and the school.


Is it worth talking to other parents? Or will that give an unusually rosy glow to the school?

Any school can be marketed brilliantly, with exceptional websites and glossy brochures full of perfect children beaming away, looking jolly happy! This can make it difficult to choose between different schools so it is always worth having a chat to other parents. However, like everything, you need to put their view into context. If they are current parents of the school then it is certainly worth speaking to them and asking them in depth questions about their views on the school. If they are a friend of someone who they think sent to their children to the school in the 1960s, then it is probably less useful. Funnily enough, this doesn’t always change the forcefulness of someone’s opinion of a school!


How important are other parents? Will you get a good sense of community?

One of the most important things about choosing a school is that the educational philosophy of the school matches your philosophy and approach to parenting. If you want your child to be an international tennis professional, then you need to ensure you are choosing a school that can put them in a strong position to achieve this. Likewise, if you want your child to go to a school that allows them to develop as an individual; to value good manners and a traditional childhood and to experience an education that allows them to grow in confidence and self-esteem, then there will be options for this as well. Don’t be fooled into thinking that some schools will achieve everything for you and your child! However, there are often many options to choose from and by matching your expectations to the school, it is likely that you will end up choosing a school with parents that share a similar view to you, which is important. Remember, it is highly likely your children will be spending time in the holidays with these parents.


How much can you trust your ‘tour guide’, who is likely to be one of the most eloquent children in the school?!

Most schools ask every child at some stage to be a tour guide as this provides an excellent opportunity for responsibility and allows the children to really show off their school. It is highly unlikely that they have been ‘prepped’ but if they have it is often fairly obvious. Talk to them about anything and everything regarding the school. They are the best adverts for the school because you will be able to get a feel for the buzz of the school and how inspired they are by their teachers and the opportunities available to them.


Should parents talk to the Head? What questions should they ask? 

Absolutely, it is so important to understand the Head’s vision and their passion for the school. What do they value, do they have the energy to take the school forward, what excites them about this stage of education? I was recently asked what I was most proud of at Sandroyd by a seven year old boy – what a great question!


What are your views on co-ed v. single sex?

Both can work wonderfully with the correct leadership and inspirational staff. It is far more important to check the values of the school are correct for your family and that the teachers in the school are outstanding, than whether your child will be learning with the opposite sex or not. Schools that insist that co-education is the best form of education – or that single sex really is the best option for your child – can become defensive and may be missing the point of what makes a good school.


What are your views on boarding, flexi v. full, boarding v. day?

Choose a school that understands what it offers and beware of schools that market themselves as providing the very best of both worlds! Personally, I feel that if you want your child to be a full boarder, then choose a school where a high proportion of the children are full boarders. The same goes with Day Schools.


What about pastoral care? Should parents ask direct questions like ‘what happens when things go wrong’? 

It is always wise to ask questions that you as parents are concerned about, whatever they relate to, but don’t feel you need to ask questions for the sake of it.


Is it really worth taking the time to look through children’s school books?

Yes, if you know what you are looking for. Don’t just do it because someone told you to!  They can however provide a good indication of how well marked they are and the style of feedback from teachers. You can also ascertain how proud children are of their work by looking at both their work and the way in which their books are presented. Even better, if you get the opportunity, ask children what they are learning about and what they need to do to improve.


How important is outdoor learning, now that everyone is doing it?

Spending significant amounts of time outdoors is absolutely key for children. They learn so much from sport, climbing trees, unstructured free time, looking after animals and taking controlled risks etc. However whilst all this is ‘outdoor learning’ it doesn’t mean that academic lessons need to take place in a wood. Classrooms still work very well for teaching academic lessons.


How important are learning environments for children – flexible classrooms? Flash new million-pound spaces? 

The environment is generated by the teachers and the ethos of the school. The accommodation is easier to ‘sell’ as it is visual, but it is far more important to observe how engaged and excited the children are about their learning. Are they energetic in their lessons, or just going through the motions? A school full of staff that are passionate about education and who really know the children is far more important than facilities. The more money spent on facilities, the less there is to spend in employing the top teachers in the country.


What about senior schools? How important is it to look at where children go on to? 

It is important to ensure there will be no ceilings to their learning and as such the school feeds to the top schools in the country. Don’t be too impressed by schools that boast huge numbers of scholarships; have a look at what the scholarships were for, and to which schools.


What else should be considered? 

Don’t choose a school on the academics alone. Yes, this is one very clear measurable, but what makes someone happy and successful in life is not directly related to their academic standard. If you are solely looking at academic data then ask for value added data, not just exam results.


At Sandroyd, we spend less than 50% of the school day in the classroom because we believe that developing a child’s character in their formative years is perhaps the most important aspect of education at this age. This can be done alongside, but not at the expense of, the academic lessons. Whilst I am unbelievably proud of our academic success, if parents are only worried about academic results, then I will suggest other schools for their children. Most schools will have the same approach as ultimately they want you to choose the correct school for your child as opposed to filling places.


Take a look for yourself at Sandroyd’s Open Days on Sat 18 May and Sat 8 June. To book your place please contact Mrs Dinah Rawlinson, Admissions Registrar on 01725 530 124.


Sandroyd School, Rushmore, Tollard Royal, Salisbury, Witlshire SP5 5QD. Tel 01725 516264,

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