Choosing the right school

Choosing the right school

We all want the best possible education for our children; we want them to embark on their adult lives with the intellectual, social and physical skills that will enable them to enjoy rewarding and prosperous futures. To achieve this, we want their talents nurtured in an environment that will maximise their chances of fulfilling their potential whilst at the same time ensuring their happiness. In general, private schools are noted for their smaller class sizes, lower student-teacher ratios and academic excellence. Faculty turnover is often low, lending stability and continuity to the educational process and your child should also receive the personal guidance and mentoring he or she deserves.

But choosing the right school can prove a daunting task: there are so many, where do you start? To make life a little easier, what follows is a simple step-by-step guide to help parents, and their children, on their quest to finding a great school.

  1. Start early and get everyone involved.

Researching schools and applying for a place takes time, so making an early start will mean you are less likely to miss key deadlines. Preferably, apply in the autumn term one year before your child is due to start.

Don’t leave your child out. You must involve them in choosing their school from the very beginning. By all means, guide the process, but don’t impose your ideas on your child. Involving your child in your research, shortlisting and school visits will be enlightening, rewarding and fun and you will all feel much more comfortable with your final decision.

  1. Make the Big Decisions.

Choosing a school is difficult enough, so don’t waste time reading about or visiting those which are obviously unsuitable. Answer some of these basic questions:

  • Mainstream or Special Education Needs (or Mainstream with Learning Support)
    Some learning, development or behavioural problems will best be suited to a Special Education Needs (SEN) school where education and therapy will be tailored to the child’s individual needs. Many SEN schools still closely follow an educational curriculum and can greatly improve the child’s rate of development and enjoyment in school life. Other conditions – for example, dyslexia – can usually be adequately supported at a mainstream school with a learning support department.
  • Single-sex or mixed.
    This is a very personal decision. Supporters believe that single-sex schools help students to focus on their studies – this is especially important, some believe, for teenagers for whom single-sex schools help to avoid the attractions (or distractions) of the opposite sex. A single-sex education might also lead students to be less conscious about potentially gender-orientated decisions – females might be keener to study sciences, for example, or males to study art. Some critics of single-sex schooling claim that the environment of these schools is artificial and hinders the student’s development of social skills. Another argument made against single-sex schools is that they do not help children to get ready for ‘real life’ and the ‘real world’ where, of course, the genders co-exist. A study conducted in UK comparing value-added scores by the Good Schools Guide showed that girls learn better in girls’ schools compared with their co-ed counterparts.
  • Day, boarding or weekly boarding.
    This decision is often dictated by personal circumstances: for example, if the parents live in an area where there are no suitable schools nearby, or if the parents frequently move with their jobs and would prefer their child to have stability in their education. But social factors also come into play: some parents don’t have time in their busy schedules to drive their kids to and from after-school activities or parties, whereas boarding school can provide a ready-made and safe social life. Proponents believe that boarding schools instill a sense of discipline among children, whether it is paying attention to their studies, or taking care of themselves, their clothes, their food, their sports and their entertainment. Parents who do not subscribe to the boarding school philosophy say that day schools are far better as children benefit from the security of having their parents around them and that the home environment can be conducive to growth and individuality.
  • Religion
    If religion is an important consideration in your choice of school then this will help narrow down the options quickly.
  • Location. Location. Location.
    It’s not only getting your child to and from school, there will also be extra-curricular activities: clubs, matches, music lessons etc. If transport needs to be provided by the school then this will obviously involve extra costs. Of course, if you opt for a boarding school this is less important, but the costs of half-term and holiday trips home still needs to be considered.
  • Fees.
    Inevitably, for most of us this is one of the most important criteria. At some of East Africa’s more expensive private schools, the costs of sending one child to school between the ages of 4 and 18 could reach around US$250,000, allowing for extra-curricular costs and for inflation. Giving a recommended income:fees ratio is not possible as it depends on the family’s other commitments (mortgage/rent, loans, etc.), but clearly a family taking home $2,000 per month will struggle to afford a $5,000 per term school. Families need to prepare a budget, allow for the unexpected, and be very honest with themselves about their disposable income now and in the years to come. It can be very disruptive and distressing, not to mention embarrassing for a child to be removed from school due to the parents’ inability to meet their financial obligations.
  • Curriculum
    The choice of curriculum depends on several factors including background, educational history, child’s aptitude and further education plans. There is no ‘correct’ choice of curriculum and equally no ‘best’ option, but in some cases certain systems will be far more appropriate than others. So take time to research the options available and bear in mind that changing curriculum at certain stages in a child’s schooling can be confusing and disruptive. The main curricula available are discussed in the following section.
  1. Research and make a short-list.

Most of us begin our research by talking to our friends and other parents and this is undoubtedly the best place to start. First-hand knowledge is great but unfortunately it is still very subjective – what suits one child will not suit all. You need to supplement the playground banter with your own research, the internet and promotional brochures being the obvious references (there are no league tables of East African Private Schools). It can be helpful to list the schools you are considering and write down some of the key information:

  • Name of School
  • Location
  • Age range
  • Terms / School hours
  • No. of pupils & average class size
  • Waiting list / admissions policy (exam?)
  • International affiliations / awards
  • Teacher:pupil ratio
  • Teacher turnover
  • Nationalities / mix (students and teachers)
  • Academic record (%A/%pass/etc)
  • Courses offered (are they broad and well-balanced)
  • Academic facilities (science/computers/library/design/etc)
  • Sporting facilities (pool/gym/courts/grounds/etc)
  • Music & Drama facilities (tuition/theatre/LAMBDA/etc)
  • Emphasis on faith, student mentoring
  • Fees, deposit and extras (transport/insurance/lunch/etc.)
  • Uniform policy
  1. Visit the school.

Once you have managed to short-list 4 or 5 schools, it’s time to arrange your visits. Again, preparation is key.

On the day of the visit, get to the school early and do a little sniffing around. Talking informally to children and staff (even the caretaker) and asking pertinent questions can be very revealing: e.g ‘what’s the food like?’; ‘what subject do you like best?’; ‘what changes would you make if you were in charge’; ‘is there any bullying?’ Observe the children and staff, do they look happy, are the children polite (do they hold the door open for you?). Of course, the school visit primarily allows you to ‘feel’ the atmosphere, meet the Head Teacher and staff, and see the classrooms and facilities available. But rather than just enjoying the tour, smiling and nodding, use this time to learn as much as you can. It is a good idea to prepare a list of questions to ask the Head Teacher and staff – some suggestions might be:

  • What are the head’s ambitions, for the pupils, the school and personally?
  • Is he/she married, with children (i.e. hands-on experience)? How old are the children, and where are they at school?
  • Until when is the Head ‘contracted’? (Is he/she about to leave?)
  • Who owns the school?
  • Does the Head think that outings broaden the education or disrupt the timetable?
  • How many people have been expelled, asked to leave, suspended in the last two years? (This could pinpoint specific problems.)
  • What form do punishments take? Are prefects allowed to mete it out?
  • Who chooses the prefects?
  • Ask for a copy of the school rules – this can be illuminating – and ask how they have been established (with pupils involvement?).
  • How are children selected, what is the school looking for?
  • Who would not be happy at the school?
  • Is there a shadowing system for new pupils?
  • How does the school tackle bullying?
  • What pastoral care is provided?
  • Does the school cater for special dietary needs?
  • What happens if a child has an accident or is ill at school?
  • Where do children typically move on to?
  • How involved are parents in the school? (PTA/socials/parents evenings/website portal/school reports)
  • Are scholarships available?

Obviously a Head Teacher will not be too impressed at being formally interrogated, and the above list is far from exhaustive, but answers to some of these questions will help you form a balanced opinion of the school.