Independent Schools: Finding a winner in a sports hall: A prep school in Surrey is inviting parents to view an unusual showcase. Elizabeth Heron reports

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The Independent Online
AN INDEPENDENT school in Surrey is holding an exhibition for parents on Saturday to provide a showcase for its own work as well as more than 50 other schools.

Christopher Linford, headmaster of Downsend School, a day preparatory school in Leatherhead, said: 'Although we have taken part in two previous exhibitions organised by the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS), this year none were local enough to be appropriate to the many schools in this area. To host our own exhibition seemed the natural corollary.'

Roedean, Tonbridge School, Charterhouse and Lancing College are among the schools that have booked stands at the exhibition, which will be held in Downsend's sports hall and an adjoining marquee. Headteachers and their senior staff will be on hand to answer parents' questions and there will be a separate exhibition of art by pupils from the schools represented as well as half-hourly concerts by pupils from seven preparatory schools.

Independent preparatory schools have for many years mounted talks and displays for parents about the main senior schools they feed, but this weekend's event is thought to be the first large-scale exhibition of its kind to be put on by a school.

Parents are expected to come from up to 20 miles around Leatherhead, a strong catchment area for the independent school sector. Most local prep and senior day schools are represented, as well as a number of boarding schools from farther afield. While last year saw a slight decline in overall independent school enrolments after nine years of growth, boarding school numbers have been declining steadily for five years, as parents have increasingly favoured day schools. Since 1990, boarding-school enrolments have been falling at 4 per cent a year. Those schools not turning themselves over to day-provision now tend to be active in promoting boarding in general and the facilities they themselves offer.

Martin Hammond, headmaster of Tonbridge School, said: 'We are a single-sex secondary boys' boarding school and we are quite certain that we are going to continue that way. There are relatively few (such schools) left - although they are quite a distinguished bunch - and we want to keep that market option open to parents in the South-east.'

He added: 'I will be at the exhibition with the second master and various staff to talk about the whole package. Boarding schools stand or fall by the quality of their pastoral care, and that is something we take very seriously.

'Very few schools can match the combination of academic and sporting strengths we have at Tonbridge. We came eleventh in the Financial Times league table of schools and we have both strength and depth in sport: we do not just have a first 15, we put up 23 15s.

'We have a tremendous range of activities: we put on 40 school trips a year, and a sixth-form general education seminar programme in which a remarkable range of distinguished people come to talk to the boys,' Mr Hammond said.

Roedean School in Brighton, East Sussex, is also firmly resisting the drift towards day provision, and Anne Longley, the headmistress, and senior staff will be at the exhibition to promote Roedean's new approach to boarding. Mrs Langley has coined the term 'flexible boarding' for a new system that offers a full seven-day-a-week programme of activities and care but allows senior pupils to return home in any weekend they do not have commitments at school. It is part of wider policy allowing girls greater contact with the outside world.

Sue Meek, Roedean's registrar, said: 'Downsend is in our catchment area and it is an opportunity to meet lots of parents, discuss the needs of their particular children and break down any preconceived ideas they may have about what Roedean might be.

'We will also be emphasising our big performing arts centre that is opening after Christmas and the very varied curriculum and activities that we offer in the sixth form.'

Downsend's exhibition is the first such event where the Royal Grammar School, a boys' day school in Guildford, has been represented. Tim Young, the headmaster, said: 'It's a reaction to the notion of league tables, which give a terribly narrow definition of good schools. We want to say to people: yes, we are academically strong, but we also have a very strong pastoral side.'

The school's policy of 'educating the whole boy' - its Combined Cadet Force, sport and extra-curricular activities - will be particularly emphasised.

Mr Young said that he would now attend almost any event promoting independent schooling in his locality to maintain contact with parents but will not take part in national events 'as we do not operate on that scale'.

Alan Quilter, regional director of ISIS in the South and West, says that exhibitions are a valuable way of opening a dialogue between schools and parents that may be crucial to a good choice of school. 'These events encourage parents to look more closely at the sort of child they have and not to follow league tables and UCCA scores too simplistically,' he says. 'I am always being asked by parents: 'Do you recommend that stand's school?' So I ask them: 'What sort of school are you looking for?' I find that many parents find it difficult to identify what their child is like.'

But he stressed that exhibitions are not a replacement for visiting the schools themselves. 'Exhibitions have become a regular part of finding a school. Wandering around a hall full of stands, you can get a real flavour of what kind of school you are looking for and then pick out three or four to go and visit,' Mr Quilter said.

If the drift towards day schooling continues, exhibitions are likely to become increasingly local events. 'If this is a success, I imagine other schools will follow in our footsteps,' Mr Linford said. 'For day pupils, local exhibitions will be the way forward.'

Independent schools exhibition, 10.30 to 5.30, Saturday 17 October, Downsend School, 1 Leatherhead Road, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 8TJ. (0372) 372197.

(Photograph omitted)

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