“Gone are the days when parenting was all about being hands-off,” a friend reminisced recently, comparing her childhood to that of her offspring. Children were largely left to their own devices. Parents knew they were “out” though not exactly where, and school was probably the nearby compound where most of the neighbourhood learned to read and write. Choosing a school for our children was done without a second thought.
“Times have changed,” she continued. “I am feeling a lot of pressure about how to give my children a head start in life!” We are in the age of helicopter parenting – mums and dads that hover overhead, overseeing all aspects of a child’s upbringing, with a good education right at the top of the list of priorities for their children. Everyone is telling us that the ‘right’ school will lead to a prestigious university, a well-paid job and a successful life. Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in our part of the world, with the unrelenting focus on top exam marks. But can, and should, this be the only way?
With a different school of thought, some parents are starting to place less emphasis on purely academic achievement. This is not to say they care less, but they realise that employers seek not just strong academics but also soft skills. This is harder to quantify, and developing a person’s EQ or out-of-the-box thinking is hugely reliant on the environment and relationships they build with those around them.
Experiences at school, whether positive or negative, will not only shape a child’s personal well-being but could also impact their academic performance and success. So how do we find that optimal school environment for our child to flourish? Following these 3 Ps will set you on the path to the ‘perfect’ place… .
We must give plenty of thought and time to planning. For some parents, this comes naturally and they may have a strong idea of where their children will one day study. In the past, parents could fill out registration forms in the delivery room and then relax for the next decade, knowing their son or daughter had a secure place in a good school. Unfortunately, top schools now will tell you that they are more merit-based and will pick from a big global pool of candidates. The sensible approach is to start the research early, gather the information and stay flexible by revisiting your thoughts on schools from time to time.
Many schools have registration deadlines of at least one year prior to entry, but the norm for highly competitive schools in the UK is a much longer lead time. You will find that colleges such as Winchester, Wellington and Harrow begin their 13+ screening tests at the age of 10. Give yourself the opportunity to research the various courses of study, obtain advice and opinions from sources such as the iInternet, fellow parents and expert consultants.
Visiting a potential school is extremely important. Even though this could mean flying overseas and travelling costs, it is the best way to get a feel of the environment in which your child will be learning. An intimidatingly initial long list should eventually narrow down, but the investment of time and energy into this planning phase always pays off.
Admission policies and procedures tend to be unique to a school, but generally involve two elements: academic testing and interviews. Being prepared and knowing what to expect can greatly increase the chances of being offered a place.
Entrance exams usually consist of English and Maths papers, but depending on the child’s age, may also include science, humanities subjects and modern languages. By seeing how a candidate performs in test papers, schools can assess them according to their own benchmark. Unless a child in Malaysia follows a British curriculum, help prepare them for entrance examinations by filling any knowledge gaps with extra lessons and doing mock practice tests under timed conditions. Most schools are very happy to share past exam papers and your child will feel a lot more confident going into an assessment knowing what to expect.
Interviews are probably the most daunting part for the admissions process. For many young children, it will be the first time they have ever been ‘put on the spot’ and it is only natural to feel nervous. Again, preparing them by running through commonly-asked questions will put them at ease. Potential questions might include: ‘Why have you picked this particular school?’, ‘Tell me about your background and personality; your interests and achievements,’ ‘Do you have any opinion about a book you read, or a recent story you heard on the news?’ Occasionally, an interviewer may like to see how a student thinks on his feet and throw out a mental maths problem or ask a tricky question: “If you were president for the day, what would you do?”
Despite urban legends, interviews are usually a pleasant chat and practising the art of conversation will be your best preparation. The admission directors are only trying to figure out if your child will fit into their school community, so it is highly unlikely they will be out to intimidate. Moreover, don’t give up this opportunity to show off: it is a great chance to make your application stand out amongst the crowd.
When it comes to education, one size certainly does not fit all. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of being swayed by school-gate chatter, the latest ‘in vogue’ learning approach and league tables. At the end of the day, the choice is a very personal decision. Every family has their own priorities and preferences for the education they are looking for.
Understanding your child and his academic, social and emotional needs is the first step. Next, make a list and write down the key considerations that are important to you as a parent:
– Your child’s personality, learning style, academic ability, particular strengths or interests.
– Student demographics – single sex or co-educational; local, international or a mix; age range; day or boarding?
– Location – how far are you willing for your child to travel; is the school near friends and family?
– Size of classes and style of teaching – small classes with discussion table set-up or traditional classroom; how large is the year group? What is the teacher to student ratio?
– Religious affiliation.
– Facilities available in the school, whether academic, sport or co-curricular (state of the art laboratories for the scientists, textile rooms for the fashion designer, black box theatres for the budding film director, sports coaching and competition opportunities for the future Olympian).
– The type of academic setting and course of study – American/British/European-based system; how does it suit possible university destinations; exam-orientated or coursework?
– Pastoral care – how will your child’s well-being be looked after; what resources and tutoring/mentoring structures are in place?
– Special needs or strengths – does the learning support department cater to your child; will he be extended through a gifted programme or super-curriculum?
– The importance of extracurricular activities – music, sport, art, drama, technology, outdoor education?
– Financial matters – affordability; availability of bursaries or scholarships.
As part of your investigation, by all means speak with other parents but do not rely on just their experiences and opinions. Join an open day and arrange a private tour wherever possible – there is no better way of getting a first-hand experience of where your child will study. You can meet both teachers and management staff and observe current students in their learning space. A great way to discover more about schools is to attend a fair which gathers a group of exhibiting schools at one event. Such events may also be attended by supporting organisations like tutoring companies, education consultants and professional guardians and have talks by experts, targeted at answering all the questions you may have.
A final note on what not to do. It is best to avoid relying solely on academic league tables or exam results. To measure any school on the basis of this data misses out on the bigger picture of what a school is doing for and by its students. Many of the better schools exclude themselves deliberately from league tables, precisely because they believe their institution’s philosophy is not purely about exam success. Admittedly, looking at a school’s academic results is useful to determine whether it is pitched at the right level for your child, but remember that the figures never can give you the whole picture. The quality of education overall is far more important than the school merely being an exam factory.
So now you know the secret: Use this three-pronged approach to choosing the best school for your child. Plan, Prepare and Personalise. These are the 3 Ps that will put your child in the right place to fulfil their maximum potential.
Stephanie Cheah is the founder of the British Schools Show (BESSA) and advocates following the three Ps for finding the perfect choice of school for your child.