Making the leap as a 'first-time buyer'

Posted on 30th Jun 2015 in Prep Schools Guide, Choosing a school

Neil Shaw, Head of Westonbirt Prep School, offers some advice for parents considering independent education for the first time...

We are so lucky to have a first rate educational system in this country. One important part of this system is the independent schools sector that is the envy of the world. Under the umbrella of professional associations such as the IAPS, the ISC and regulated by ISI, parents have a stamp of quality when buying into independent education. Of course, a quality independent education comes at a price and is not accessible to everyone but, as the Head of Westonbirt Prep School, I meet parents all the time who are considering independent education for their children for the first time. I am fascinated by the reasons behind their choices and the strength that it must take to make such a fundamentally important decision as choosing the correct educational path for your child, particularly when it involves making such a huge investment, both emotionally and financially in an unfamiliar school system.

Increasingly, there are more and more parents who are ‘first time buyers’, investing in independent education for the very first time having not experienced it for themselves or had any family members attend private school before. In many cases they have to overcome prejudices and myths perpetuated by a hostile media that inaccurately portrays all independent schools as elitist institutions preserved for the upper classes and the fabulously wealthy. Increasingly, perfectly regular families are considering moving their child(ren) out of the local primary school, away from established friendship groups, familiar teachers and often a community of local playmates and a short walk or convenient drive for the daily ‘school run’. Parents are often heavily involved in the local school community; sitting on the PTA committee or even acting as a parent governor. The school the children are attending is also free. So why are ‘first time’ parents making the jump from state to independent schools in increasingly large numbers? Fundamentally they do not consider themselves to be wealthy or privileged. They are most likely to be hard working professional types. In almost all cases parents work full-time and they are working extremely hard, making terrific personal sacrifices and looking for a school that will provide a neat and tailor made package that suits their family’s hectic lifestyles and demanding needs; this is about so much more than education, it is about wrap-around child-care, after-school clubs and activities and holiday provision. The best independent schools are now able to offer a ‘one-stop-shop’ for increasingly busy, hard working parents who need the full range of their child’s needs met from a single provider.

It is fairly easy to examine the reasons why parents consider an independent education for their children. Most parents are looking for a richer and more dynamic educational offering. Nearly all tell me that their child is ‘extremely happy’ at his or her current school, but the parents are concerned about educational outcomes, breadth of curriculum and limited opportunities. Academic rigour, high standards of aspiration and expectations are extremely desirable, as are smaller class sizes. Competitive sport, regular PE and swimming, drama, music, art and Forest School are all on offer at the best independent schools. Usually, parents are very pleased with the primary school that they originally choose for their children. It would appear that as their child(ren) get older they begin to feel that the educational provision is not living up to their expectations. Increasingly parents look to move their children towards the end of Key Stage 1 or near the beginning of Key Stage 2, so at Westonbirt School we find entries into Year 3 or Year 4 are commonplace. I think one of the driving factors is the nagging doubt that their child may not be able to gain entry to the secondary school of choice if they do not have a few years of quality education under their belt. This is certainly the case in any area which still benefit from selective grammar schools and the 11 + system.

Even once parents have made the decision to take a preliminary look at an independent school, either on a formal Open Event or by appointment during a regular school day, they still often have a variety of anxieties and inhibitions. Although every independent school I have ever worked at has been warm, friendly and welcoming places parents worry that they will not ‘fit in’, that everyone in the school will be ‘rich’ and ‘posh’. They can have dreadful misgivings about even visiting the school, fearful that they are being in some way disloyal to their current school or even disloyal to their entire community. Many are fearful that they will not be able to afford the education that is on offer, certainly if they have two or more children and feel very strongly that if they offer one child access to an independent education then they must be able to afford to pay for all their children to do the same. Some are anxious that they are signing themselves up for many, many years of crippling fees whilst others worry simply that they will be removing their children from the comfort and security of a known and familiar school environment and what if they don’t make any friends.

Whatever the anxieties, concerns and inhibitions that are being harboured by parents, I always take the time and the trouble to reassure them; to explain that the majority of people who work in and attend independent schools are ordinary, down-to-earth people. That all families are working hard to make ends meet and are making sacrifices in their own expenditure to allow them to pay for independent schooling. Most importantly, they too have chosen to invest in their child’s future and have taken a brave decision at some point. I explain the benefits of the holistic approach to education which encompasses the child’s social, moral, personal, health education as well as the academic.

It is also not as expensive as some people may fear. It is the value for money that must be considered rather than the cost. A full education at any number of independent schools across the country can include over and above the curriculum additional co- and extra-curricular activities such as sport, music, art, outdoor education and drama as well as after-school clubs and activities and holiday clubs. Swimming lessons are a key part of the education that we provide along with offering musical instrument tuition, ballet, dance or martial arts. Many schools, such as ours, also incorporate exam preparation classes for entry into selective grammar schools or independent schools. Bursaries and scholarships are also on offer which can make access to a quality independent education accessible for greater numbers of children. Easy payment methods can be set up for monthly payments. Increasingly, the grandparents are supporting their grandchildren’s education financially and are now often included as key decision makers in the process of choosing independent schools.

If you have a nagging doubt about the quality of your child’s current education then I would offer the words of advice I give to prospective Westonbirt parents. Trust your instincts as a parent. Consider investing in independent education even if you have to make sacrifices in order to be able to afford it. Your child’s education is more important than a new car or an annual foreign holiday. When it comes to looking at independent schools look very carefully at what is included in the fees. If the school offers every variety of educational and extra-curricular activity as a ‘one stop shop’ then it is possible you could save a large amount of money on child-care, sports clubs, swimming lessons, stage school, grammar school tuition, music, language and martial arts. Not to mention the time and money spent on running ‘Mum and Dad’s taxi service’. Make the right decision for your family and child(ren) irrespective of pressure from the local community, friends or the media. Buying into independent education is not a status symbol. It is about making the right choices for your child’s best educational interests and future potential. It is about investing in your child’s future and choosing a school that will support all the needs of your growing family. There will be such a school near you, go and see for yourselves.

For more information about Westonbirt Prep School, visit its profile page.