Whether you are just starting out making decisions about senior schools or about to fill out the application forms for your well-researched list of target schools, there is still a lot to consider. This week, we invited Lucy Williams, one of the founders of Talk Education to enlighten us about all she has learnt over the years researching schools and what we need to know about moving from state to private.
What led to the founding of Talk Education?
We founded Talk Education – a dynamic, digital hub for independent education – to give parents properly informed guidance about school choices and arm them with all the information they need to find the perfect school for their child. Our aim is to demystify the confusing language of the independent sector, collate all the information you could possibly need (school reviews, videos, images, contact details, open days, term dates, fees and results, as well as individual information on bursaries and SEND provision) and really help parents build up a picture of what their child’s experience might be like at their chosen school. We get under the skin of schools – and beyond the marketing gloss and dinner party chat.
We are all mothers (with just a few exceptions), and have been through this all ourselves. Talk Education is the result of not only a combined 175 years of researching and writing about schools, but also what we’ve learned along the way with our own children. My journey has not always been smooth– my mother moved me from a super state school to an independent prep in Year 4 so I could be stretched a bit more. Mid-way through sixth form, I left my very academic all-girls boarding school to go to a sixth form college in Cambridge, before heading to Oxford for university.
My three very different children were at three very different schools, but they’re now all blissfully happy at the same school which successfully accommodates each of their needs and allows them to be the best version of themselves. For that, I’m truly blessed – and if Talk Education can help other parents reach that goal, then we will have achieved what we set out to do.
Before you visit a school, what questions do you ask?
The first question I always ask myself is: why am I visiting? It’s important to be really honest with yourself – is it because it’s a name, or – dare I say it – a dinner party boast? Is it because a friend or colleague has raved about it being perfect for their child; because it has topped a league table or won an award? Or is it because you’ve researched it, and think that it potentially ticks the logistics, environment, community, ethos and academics boxes for both your child and your family?
Visiting schools for my own children was a very different experience to visiting schools for work. It’s much easier to ask the right questions if you take a very child-centred approach and you’re honest about that child’s needs; for my child who moved from the state to the independent sector, I wanted to know a lot about the transition years. How did they ensure all children were brought up to speed academically? How committed was the school in taking on state school children? Was the pastoral care multi-layered and proactive? Would there be someone looking out for the children and help them get organised and get the right balance between co-curricular and academic? State school children might be overwhelmed by the extraordinary roster of options and extras in an independent school – and I wanted to ensure that my child wouldn’t get lost.
Finally, it’s important to make sure the school is aligned with your values and outlook. Ask about discipline; how outward-facing the school is, and the balance between sport, the arts, music and academics, so you know it’s right for your child. I always ask pupils how much they see the head, and what they think of them – it’s important to find out who will be the role models for your child.
Why do you think an advisory service is important for parents?
An advisory service gives parents a helping hand to gain the knowledge and confidence they need to successfully engage with the schools. We see parents from all walks of life – particularly those who are new to the UK independent sector (whether they’re new parents, or coming from abroad) and those moving from the state sector. Our aim is to act as a sounding board: we demystify the language and the admissions process, so that parents have a firm foundation on which to start researching, engaging with, visiting and registering their child for the school themselves.
Some parents will come back to us after they’ve visited the schools, so we can help them refine the list they’ve built up. Some might need more help creating a long list. We’re here to provide guidance, but we’re very insistent that parents should take ownership of the final decision themselves – this is far too important a life move to outsource.
If your child is currently at a state school and you are interested in moving to the independent sector, what do you need to know?
Firstly, think about logistics. Get to know the independent schools that are closest to you – the transport system opens up some fabulous options. Think about your child’s commute – not just the time it will take for them to get to and from school each day, but how it might impact their social life – sometimes their travel buddies are a valuable addition.
Familiarise yourself with the admissions process and the academics. How might your child need to prepare for the competitive entrance exams? Think about the size, ethos, community and environment of the school and whether your child could flourish there. Find out what provision is made for settling the children in Year 7 and how many children come from state school. Their experience is likely to be very different from those coming from a prep school.
Is it worth the effort preparing for a selective school?
Absolutely – because by exploring the options available in both the independent and state sectors, you will be able to make the most informed decision for your child.
Many state school children will follow both tracks. Make sure you familiarise them with the tests and stretch them to the necessary level to access the academic standards of the school. This will involve you engaging in some independent preparation for around a year. If you’re pitching your child to a school that you think will be right for them, it absolutely doesn’t need to be a stressful process, so resist the temptation to over tutor – the schools are looking for potential – critical thinking skills, creativity and a growth mindset; not the finished product.
Being part of an independent school may give your child just the environment they need to flourish – that might be smaller class sizes, it might be a broader academic curriculum and a greater emphasis on education outside of the classroom enabling them to gain confidence in the arts, music and sport or to benefit from a proactive pastoral care system.
What are the blockers that can cause a parent to stumble in this process?
There are some big potential blockers – but none are insurmountable. If anything, the extra legwork you have to do may well make the school a better match – and schools appreciate, recognise and reward that.
It can be difficult not having a steer or feedback from a prep school, which ultimately helps many families understand the complex admissions process and choose the right school for their child. Speak to your state school and get as much information as you can about how your child is faring academically and the environment they best learn in and then speak to the senior schools and ask the questions that are important to you.
State schools can also be unfamiliar with writing pupil references, but admissions departments are always happy to explain what they need.
Parents are often shy to ask about bursaries – and applying for one can be a time consuming and daunting process, but the admissions teams are always so welcoming, open and helpful, and you will learn about the community you would be joining.
Lastly, fear of the unknown for children who are following a different path to their contemporaries might feel like the biggest stumbling process, but again opening your child’s mind to the opportunities and helping them to embrace and indeed overcome uncertainty is a hurdle cleared that will set them up well for the future.
What’s your final piece of advice?
Choosing the right number of schools for your child to sit, while a challenge is so important. Taking the time to build an appropriate list (not too many but enough to provide a good spread) will maximise their chances, maintain their confidence, and keep stress levels to a minimum. Visit our Talk Education site to explore options and use our parent dashboard to compare data on your favourite schools on everything from academic results, to transport links, to size, fees and the sports played. And if you need bespoke advice, our parent advisory team will be happy to help.