Take one average pupil ... and create a star

What can parents do if they fear their child will not flourish in a comprehensive? Sandra Smith looks at the choices ... and the costs
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What do you do if you fear your child will sink without trace in a large comprehensive school? Some parents who can afford it opt for private education, but what if the child cannot pass academic entry tests?

Parents of average or below-average ability children who want to educate them in the independent sector face the problem that few schools are willing to advertise themselves as non- academic or non-selective.

"Very few independent schools are prepared to admit that they are non- selective," says Jonathan Forster, headmaster of Moreton Hall in Shropshire, a mixed boarding and day school for girls from 10 to 18, which caters for all abilities. "It is difficult to get people to state where they are in the marketplace."

Schools that run vocational courses are acknowledging that they may have a pupils unsuited to A-levels. The presence of qualified dyslexic teachers says something, although some academic private schools employ them, too.

Parents could also look at the range of A-levels offered. If there is lots of home economics and history of art, then the school is catering for a wide range of abilities. But the signals are not clear.

Rodney Portman, an educational consultant, says that no school wants to label itself as B-stream, so there is a coded language. "For example, `we cater for a wide range of ability' probably means that it takes weaker students. `We particularly support the less able boy' means the majority are less able."

By consulting the exam league tables parents will discover whether their target schools have modest or ambitious academic leanings. A more important indicator of success would be what graduates from the schools go on to do.

Guy Douglass, development manager at Kingham Hill School in Oxfordshire, believes the most important guide to choosing a senior school will be a child's present prep school head.

He insists that Kingham Hill, which is co-educational and takes boarding and day pupils from 11 to 18, is not non-academic. "We try to cater for the average ability child who needs individual attention. But we don't take anyone who couldn't handle a GCSE course."

He emphasises the importance of school size. "Most children who need a push would be better in a smaller school, where their self-confidence is boosted and they are made to feel like a bigger fish in a smaller pond."

Just because these less academic schools aren't topping the league tables doesn't make them cheap. In fact, they often cost more than prestigious selective schools because their pupil/ staff ratios need to be low to give the children the attention they need.

Fees for boarders can be as high as pounds 4,050 per term, for day pupils pounds 2,320 per term. Information on the many schemes to help with fees is available from educational consultants such as Gabbitas and the Independent Schools Information Service (Isis).

Many of these schools specialise in or make provision for special needs such as dyslexia. Further information about the Council for the Registration of Schools Teaching Dyslexic Pupils is available from the British Dyslexia Association or the Dyslexia Institute. There are many reputable guides to independent schools.

At the end of the day, says Rodney Portman, "if you shoehorn children into schools that are too demanding, you are not doing them any favours. They will only succeed if they are happy in their environment."

Gabbitas Educational Consultants (0171 734 0161); Isis (0171 630 8793); Portman Educational Consultants (0171 835 0637); British Dyslexia Association (01734 668271); the Dyslexia Institute 01784 463851). Macmillian publishes `The Good Schools Guide' at pounds 14.99.