General Tips on choosing an Independent school.

Whilst educating our children certain decisions were forced on us through a lack of understanding of some of the issues involved, especially in the early years. Often decisions have to be made a year or more in advance, so it pays to do your homework.

So in no particular order...

1) Music Scholarships.

Some schools are very good at encouraging music, but if you want your little Johnny to excel in music you will find that you have to pay for a peripatetic teacher. (i.e. a person who travels from place to place).
Even though the teacher may be organised through the school your contract will almost certainly be with the music teacher direct. They will expect the usual one terms notice if you are not satisfied with the quality of teaching. Do get advice on who are the best teachers. Some teach just enough to have your child play a tune, but not all have the skills to teach to a high professional level. It will depend on what sort of result you are after.

If your child becomes very good, then they may be a candidate for a Music Scholarship. What nobody tells you is that the choice of instrument is often as important as the childs skill. When trying for a Scholarship, you need to determine what sort of instrument is in vogue at your school of choice.

The catch is that they will be too young for you to have even thought about the problem of which school to send them too, and by the time they get to grade 6 in underwater harps, it is too late to change instruments. Most candidates for a Scholarship will offer at least two instruments, and may be expected to do some simple singing as well.

Ask yourself why a school needs musicians? Almost always they want to have some sort of Orchestra, so any orchestral instrument will be ideal. Beware that some instruments will be over subscribed, such as the Clarinet and Flute - both popular choices.
(On the other hand, a clarinet means that it is easy to play the saxophone, for instance, but not necessarily the other way round!). Choose carefully, a double bass might not be suitable for a small 9 year old.

Having said that, there is not much mileage in forcing one's child to play the bassoon when all they ever wanted to do was play the drums!

One instrument that is almost always ignored by Scholarship auditions is the Guitar, although it is a very popular instrument to learn. This is because it does not easily fit into any kind of traditional ensemble, however there are exceptions to this rule if your child is particularly gifted.

2) Music Grades and music theory exams.

One detail often overlooked is the subject of music theory. If you are doing the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music grade exams, remember that your child has to pass Grade 5 theory exams before progressing beyond Grade 5 instrument. In other words, you can't do Grade 6 instrument without Grade 5 theory. Other music boards such as the Trinity Guildhall are slightly easier to pass and have different requirements. Once again - this comes down to planning, as taking Grade 5 theory is no easy task, and a firm foundation of the earlier theory grades should be achieved before tackling this exam.

3) Moving Children early.


Headmasters can get quite upset if you decide to moving little Johnny from their school early. So don't expect a great deal of co-operation when the new school asks for reports. There does seem to be an unwritten agreement between local schools not to poach pupils. Even if the original school is failing in its job. Sometimes an application to one school might preclude an application to another school in the same group. Read the small print.

4) Beware of accelerating a child beyond his age group.


It is always nice to think your child is ahead of the pack and doing so well that they are put up a year. The bad news is that when changing to a senior school at 11 or 13, then the new school may well have a strict policy of putting them back into their correct age group. At some stage they may have to repeat a year, and our experience was that it was a big mistake to let them repeat a year in their old school. Better to move them into the new school as soon as possible, and have them repeat the year in the new environment, provided the new school will allow that.

5) When to move - 11 or 13?


Difficult one that. I have heard it said that a prep school is like investing in an insurance policy that matures at 13. The best returns on the policy are achieved in the last two years, so cashing in at 11 is wasting the policy. However, to take this analogy a little further, it all depends on how good the policy is in the first place. Sometimes it is best to cut ones losses and move on.

At 11+ the only entrance requirements are Maths, English and Verbal Reasoning, along with a good headmasters reports and some sort of interview. In fact, the interview may well be the most crucial part of the exercise. Headmasters know very well the amount of cramming that goes on to get children through the 11 and 13+ exams. So an interview is a good way of sifting out the wheat from the chaff.
Note that Verbal Reasoning & 11+ papers are easy to get hold of in all good bookshops. (Amazon link)

At 13+ things get a little tougher. For a start, 13+ verbal reasoning papers are not generally available. (Part of the secret society for teachers!) Entrance requirements are varied but almost always include 13+ Maths, English and verbal reasoning papers but may also require good results in the Common Entrance exams or there own alternative papers. Places tend to be more limited, as many schools try to fill up their quota at 10 or 11.

Quite a few schools no longer take the Common Entrance results into account, as they are too late in the years for schools to plan their intake requirements.

Many of the higher schools are now concentrating on taking pupils at 10 or 11. From their point of view it is simply good business sense to do so. However, there are other factors involved. Several teachers have told me pupils arriving at 13 may have missed out on some of the syllabus taught in the higher school. In fact a common observation by 13+ pupils is that they have spent the previous year doing nothing but practise Common Entrance papers. They, of course, are thoroughly bored by this. The new school will regard this as a wasted opportunity as no new real teaching has been done.

6) Some common phrases...


This one I really love. 'It is much better to be a big fish in a small pond that a small fish in a big pond'. Sound good doesn't it. Well, as one sixth former told me - the only big fishes in any pond are the 6th formers, and they are more like sharks!


7) Know your school entrance dates.



If your child is to move on in the September, applications for the schools of your choice should have been made no later than the November of the previous year. (With some exceptions). In our case we had our children listed with the school of choice about 3 years prior to their expected entrance date. Don't forget the terms notice required for leaving a school either. You might think about putting in your notice and then withdrawing it later. (Talk to the headmaster).

Note also that the Common Entrance papers, if required by a school, will be marked by that school, not some central body as with GCSE.