Even though the Government is doing some tinkering with the relationship between state and independent education – in particular, allowing free schools to be run by private groups and funded by the government – the landscape has not yet experienced any seismic changes, and doesn't seem likely to in the near future. There are, after all only around 100 free schools open or due to open this year, set against well over 20,000 state-controlled ones, and the proportion of children involved in this reform remains tiny.
So, for the time being at least, most parents looking for an alternative to state schools have one main alternative: the independent sector.
There are around 2,500 independent schools in the UK, educating more than 600,000 children, which is about 6.5 per cent of the school-age population. They are referred to in various ways, whether they are called public schools, private schools, independent schools, fee-paying schools, and prep schools, all of them are characterised by the fact that they are not run, or paid for, by the government. However, they do not exist completely outside of public control, since they are inspected by the state education body, Ofsted, and their pupils take exams and acquire qualifications overseen and accredited by the government.
Although independent schools have much in common, they can also vary widely in the type of education they offer, and in the type of pupil they are principally suited for. So what are the main factors parents should consider in choosing a school for their child?
"What's important for me is that there's a good match between the school and the child," says Nicholas Weaver, headmaster of Ipswich School, a mixed preparatory and senior school with 1,100 pupils. And he lists two main areas where parents should judge whether that match exists. "First, the academic level at which the lessons are pitched is obviously important. If a child is just not keeping up with the pace, or being held back in some way, that can be a miserable experience."
The second area is the mix of extra-curricular activities offered. "Does the school have the wherewithal to take the child where they want to go if they already have a leaning in a specific area of music or sport? Or is there enough breadth so that the child who is unformed can find something that inspires them and then know that the only limit to their achievement will be their own commitment and potential?"
Katy Ricks, the headteacher of Sevenoaks School in Kent, thinks parents should follow their gut instinct as to a school's suitability. "I have a basic rule of thumb," she explains. "If you like the school and your children like it, then that should be enough to go on."
And the only way to find that out, she says, is to visit the school, but not just on an open day. "An open day is a good first step, but it's often best to go on an individual tour and see the school on a normal day," she says. "Then you can observe the way that teachers talk to parents and the way students talk to each other. I call this the tone, ethos and style of a school, and you can't really get to grips with that without doing a visit."
But Ricks agrees that it's also important to make sure the academic level is right for children. "They should feel sufficiently stretched but not uncomfortable, and you should be happy that the particular subjects and areas they are interested in are well catered for, whether they are arts, science or community service," she explains.
Both Ipswich School and Sevenoaks School are members of the Independent Schools Council (www.isc.co.uk), which represents schools educating four out of five children in the independent sector.
The ISC website has an extensive database of all member schools, which is a useful resource for parents who are just starting their search for a institution, particularly when they are moving into an unfamiliar area. The website has an easy facility to search by county, and a slightly more time-consuming option to search by a series of other criteria, including gender of the pupils, religious affiliation, subjects offered and the types of qualification covered in the senior school.
This is becoming an increasingly common distinguishing factor, as more schools are adopting courses towards international GCSEs (seen as more rigorous than conventional GCSEs), and the International Baccalaureate as an alternative to traditional A-levels.
Raw statistics about how well schools do on the academic side can be found in the annual league tables published by the government, which rank all schools, regardless of whether they are state or independent, according to percentages of pupils getting various grades at exams taken at the ages of 16 and 18.
But these can be a challenge to understand, not least because successive governments have changed the substance and manner of how the raw material is presented. For example, Ipswich School's ranking in the tables published at the end of last month shot upwards, because the current government decided to recognise the international GCSE, which hitherto hadn't been counted as an eligible qualification.
This leads Weaver to counsel against too much weight being given to league tables alone.
"Tables are one measure, but they are not the be all and end all. Here we like to say we put the education first and the exam results will follow. I think parents are savvy. They want some data, yes, but much more they want the reassurance that a school will give their child the same love and care that they give them at home," he says.
This is a particular concern, of course, if the child is going to be boarding at the school. At this point, it becomes important for parents to discover what sort of arrangements exist, and the ratio of boarders to day pupils. There are around 340 boarders to 640 day pupils at Sevenoaks School. Ricks highlights the controlled social environment offered by boarding arrangements, but in no way suggests that this is a replacement for family life. "Boarding here is quite like family life, but it's not instead of parents; it's with parents," she explains.
"And there's a hidden thing as well. I feel that when you are working, studying and learning in a place where people live, then it de-institutionalises a place," she adds.
At Ipswich, which describes itself as a day school that has a boarding house, the influence of the latter component is much smaller. "Pupils leave the boarding house in the morning, and come to school for the day," explains Weaver. "It's not all 'back to the house for toast' at every break time!"
'You wince when you write the cheques, but it's worth it'
Emma Esplen and her husband, who live in north London, send their children to local independent schools. Their 14-year-old daughter attends Highgate School (pictured left), a mixed day school for three to 18-year-olds; their son, 10, goes to Hereward House, a boys' preparatory school for four to 13-year olds.
"Neither my husband nor I was privately educated, apart from when I did my A-levels, but when our daughter failed to get a place at our chosen state C of E primary school, we went to look at a private school someone recommended. I was pretty amazed at what I saw, so that's when we started to consider it as a serious option," she says. But taking the step to go private wasn't easy, because the couple had always been in favour of state education.
"I remember when we were first thinking about it, I spoke to my father, and he said 'do the best you can afford for your kids'. So we did, and that quote has stuck with me ever since." Now, with both her children in private schools, does she think it is worth the significant monthly financial outlay?
"It's not as if you don't wince when you write the cheques, but we think it's worth it. Our kids are happy and they are definitely getting a better education that we got at state comprehensives.
"They have to work hard but the quality of learning is astonishing, and generally they are inspired by their teachers. For example, my son is learning Latin, doing complicated translations and enjoying it.
"My daughter's school recognised an ability she has at running, and she is shining in a school cross-country team they have set up. As a result, she has realised that she is good at a sport, when before she thought she was rubbish."
Esplen points out that her friends send their children to state schools and are happy with how it's turned out. "We took the private option, because we considered it the safer one for our children."
All schools, whether independent or state run, hold open days for prospective parents to look at the premises and facilities and hear from the head about his or her vision of education in the school.
A large proportion of these events take place at the start of the school year, in September and October, since this is the key time to start the application process for entry to a school in the autumn of the following year. Attending one of these is a good way of getting a general picture of a school, as a precursor to arranging an individual or small group visit on another day, when you should be able to get a better taste of school life on a normal day.
Every open day should contain most, if not all, of the following types of elements:
- An address from the head
- A tour of the premises, both inside and out
- A closer look at some classrooms
- Some interaction with the currently enrolled pupils
- An opportunity to ask questions
- A look at boarding facilities, if they exist.
However, it is also wise for parents to think carefully, before the open day, about what they want to find out about a school and, if it's not covered in the programme of events, to ask directly for the information. These areas might include the following:
- How big are the classes?
- Is there any streaming?
- How much time is spent on music, art, sport or languages?
- Do day pupils have access to any facilities provided to boarders?
- What provision does the school have for pupils who struggle?
And finally, remember: if you're told anything you don't understand, ask for an explanation. After all, you are the customer.