What should you look for in a school?

Ethos is a vital part of any education – and it's something you need to check out in person

Looking out over the grim industrial slag heaps of St Custard's, Nigel Molesworth, the hero of Geoffrey Willians' Down with Skool!, recalls a prospectus boasting of its beautiful setting.

To make sure your child does not end up terrorised, as in the book, it pays to learn as much as possible about the school. And to uncover that most ephemeral of educational frameworks, a school's ethos, you need to do the leg work and have a poke around.

An "ethos" may sound like the kind of waffle that league-table losers use to suggest that they are offering something better than top results and Oxbridge places, but even top scorers take it seriously and say it's something you have to check out in person.

"There's no substitute for a personal visit," says Dr Martin Stephen, High Master at St Paul's Boys' School in London. "Schools acquire reputations that last years and years, but bear absolutely no resemblance to the school itself."

Open days are much the same at most schools. Parents are taken around, work is exhibited or classes eavesdropped on, and parents are given the chance to talk to pupils. What should they be looking for?

Many schools merrily wheel out historical relics and reel out impressive lists of alumni (sometimes, ironically, people who hated the place when there). Don't be bamboozled. "The history is vaguely interesting, but hardly relevant," says Stephen.

Instead, he says, parents should be looking for the support and encouragement that the pupils are given. Most parents will be more interested in what happens when things go wrong than when all is well.

And leave your preconceptions at the door. "Loads of parents expect to see half the class inventing cold fusion with a paperclip and a marble while the other half tears their hair out because they can't keep up," he says. "In fact, we encourage pupils to do what they enjoy doing and do it well."

If even St Paul's struggles with parents' misperceptions, what hope is there for less famous schools? Faith schools, in particular, can find it hard to reach out beyond their own community, often because parents simply do not consider them an option. Most people's knowledge of Quakers, for example, begins and ends with an image of Puritan austerity on the front of a cereal box. But Britain's seven Quaker schools are far from austere.

"There's a friendliness and an informality that you don't normally expect to find in independent schools," says Jane Peake, the development director at Bootham School, a co-educational school in York, teaching 11-year-olds and up, which has an open day this Saturday.

"The relationship between pupils, and between pupils and staff, is really something we're very proud of," Peake says. "That feeling of cooperation is something that you have to come and see for yourself."

The school teaches on Saturday mornings, and lessons go on as usual during the open day. Peake believes this is an advantage. "You can be an observer. You can just sit back and watch it all going on around you."

Some schools really are too puritan for open days. "It's very much an occasion put on to put the school in the best possible light," says Nigel Home, headmaster at Bendarroch School in East Devon, a co-educational school for four- to 13-year-olds. Home shows parents around individually.

Bendarroch is one of a few UK schools that offer a radical alternative to traditional schooling, what Home calls a "distinct ethos". But that does not mean poor grades: Home says that over 6 per cent of pupils go on to get Oxbridge places.

"The most useful question a parent can ask is not what good can the school do my child, but what harm?", Home says. At Bendarroch, he argues, that will be very little. It is a bleak but useful way of seeing things. Will your choice of school open up opportunities or close them down? Will it encourage your children to learn? You need to see for yourself to find out.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on Scotland's oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
News
news

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballThe latest scores and Twitter updates from tonight’s games, featuring Bayern Munich vs Man City and Chelsea vs Schalke
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
News
i100
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur
film

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959

Extras
10 best table lamps
indybest
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

English Teacher (Bristol and South Gloucestershire)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: English teachers for day to day cover,...

Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Year 6 Teacher RequiredThis teaching...

Maths Teacher (Swindon and Wiltshire)

Negotiable: Randstad Education Bristol: Maths teachers for short-term cover, l...

Science Teacher 0.4

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Science Teacher 0.4 - Immediat...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week