We ask Jim Hewer, founder of Heritage Education, for advice on visiting prospective UK boarding schools for your child.
1) When do I need to start visiting schools?
School visits or attending Open Days are essential and these really should take place during Y5 if you are looking for Senior Schools for a 13+ entry. The reason that you should visit the schools in Y5 is so that all the doors are open to your son/daughter as most schools require you to be registered towards the end of this academic year.
If you are planning on sending your son/daughter for 6th form then visit during Y10.
2) How many schools should I visit?
I think that if you have done your homework and taken some good advice then visiting four schools should certainly be enough. Some families like to visit more than four but really if you have a strong sense of what you are looking for, and you are looking in the right place, then four should be plenty.
3) Should I bring my child with me?
Absolutely! I think that this is extremely important because, at the end of the day, it is your child who will be going to the school. So for them to have a 'buy in' makes real sense and helps to give the child a sense of ownership of the decision being made. Also seeing your child in that environment will help you to recognise whether they ‘fit in’ and will be happy. Seeing their reactions to things is critical to helping you make a good decision.
4) What does a school visit usually involve?
Good question! All schools do it slightly differently. Some schools offer a member of the admissions team to show you around the school. Some schools have a student available to show you around the relevant parts of their school. Some include boarding houses on the tour, some don’t. You may even get invited to lunch in one of the boarding houses!
I think the schools that have students show families around give parents and prospective students the best opportunity to gain an understanding of the school and to ask questions to someone that is actually going through the process of being at the school. This gives a great insight into what the school is like and what the students are like at that school.
Broadly speaking you will have an opportunity to meet the admissions team, see the school and find out more about the admissions process and gain an important insight into the culture of the school - all important things!
5) What questions should I ask?
Well, different things are important to different families but looking at it from an overseas parent's perspective I think the most important thing to ascertain is exactly how many of the students are in school on a Saturday night. Many schools will appear to be full boarding schools but in truth not many are these days. If having your son/daughter in a full boarding school is important to you as a family then this would be a very useful piece of information to find out. A good tip is to ask the chef (when being shown round the dining room) how many students he catered for on Sunday!!
I think establishing facts surrounding different boarding houses is also important as well. Schools do boarding in slightly different ways. Some have ‘in' college houses and ‘out' houses, some eat in house and some have centralised dining. It's amazing how much of a difference this makes to the experience a student will have at a school - choosing the right boarding environment is very important as well.
Ask what the school looks for when selecting its candidates from the various assessments/tests/interviews that they conduct. This not only gives you an insight into the values of the school but also an interesting opportunity to make sure that you are working on those things in the lead up to sitting assessments and entry tests.
Jim Hewer is the former Senior Master of Papplewick School, Ascot. His association with British boarding schools has been the mainstay of his entire professional life both as a schoolmaster and also since 2011 as the Director of Heritage Education Ltd.
Jim believes passionately about the merits of the boarding school system in the UK and has two children of his own currently in the system at Harrow and at St George’s Ascot. Heritage Education was set up to act as a bridge between the independent schools system in the UK and overseas families who would like to educate their children in this system. Using his 13 years experience as a schoolmaster, Jim quickly understands young people and what makes them tick, successfully identifying the correct environment for the children to thrive in. Jim’s unofficial motto is to "Find a school where the kids can thrive NOT just survive!” Its all about finding the right environment.