School Visits: What questions to ask?

‘Tis the season for school visits! Don’t miss the opportunity of spending time with the Head, boarding staff or a current student and enriching your experience with key questions about their school. The following is a list of what you may wish to ask. It is by no means exhaustive; use it as a guide and adapt the questions to your own needs – you’ll have to be selective, given the relatively short time available during visits.

Academic issues
What are the entry requirements?
At what age and into which year will the school consider entry, especially in the case of children with a June or July birthday. You should also find out what arrangements need to be made to take any entrance exams or tests or interviews.

Can we see your academic results for the past three years? Also, can we see details of the school’s position in the league tables and the number of places obtained by pupils at UK universities?
There is now much talk about ‘value added’, but measuring it or benchmarking it is difficult. Average points scores per subject and per pupil have become important indicators. League tables need to be treated with caution though, as they do not give a rounded picture of the school’s real success or failure at enabling pupils to reach their full potential. However, the annual tables or, better still, the averages over the past three years can be used to identify trends within a school, and most schools accept that these tables are used for obtaining comparisons. The tables should make information available in a form that is understandable and helpful to parents. These, and the places obtained at UK universities, will give you an indication of pupils’ attainment and progress, particularly with reference to the top of the ability range, and of the school’s success at helping pupils realise their academic potential.

How does the school approach the teaching of English, sciences, mathematics, modern languages, and information and communication technology (ICT) for the most and least able students?
These are key subjects, and your child could be at either end of the ability range. It is important to know how a school responds to a child’s individual abilities and needs. It is also important to find out how subjects fit into a broad, well-balanced curriculum, and how essential study skills, particularly in ICT, are being developed and integrated.

How will the school get the best out of our child, who has a particular interest in sport/music/drama/art…?
This is a very general question aimed at finding out about the school’s extracurricular activities, and how the school encourages participation in them. Ask about the activities that interest your child most or in which he/she has a particular talent.

What is the school’s policy on careers education and applications to further and higher education? Does the school have particularly strong links to any professions?
Good careers advice is an essential part of education throughout the school. Providing advice and help to pupils so that they can take the right steps into the outside world and its many career opportunities is a crucial role for the school. Careers departments should have an established local support network of contacts in the main professions who are able and willing to pass on the benefits of their experience. Recent school-leavers’ lists of university places and courses studied will provide a valuable indicator of the school’s strengths and successes.

Rules and regulations
What is your policy on use of the internet, mobiles phones and other devices?
Internet abuse is a major international problem, and parents should feel confident that the school has realistic, sensible and positive policies in place to ensure pupils use the internet for educational purposes and to communicate with friends and family, but not to spend time playing computer games or downloading dubious material. Similarly, mobile phones have a constructive use, not least as a means of keeping in touch with parents, so long as rules on their use and security are in place and put into practice.

What are the school’s policies on alcohol, drugs and smoking? Is the school facing any particular problems in any of these areas at present?
Every school will have a policy in place to cover these matters. The real issue is how such matters are dealt with and whether the individuals concerned learn from their mistakes. This is a chance for prospective parents to consider the school’s personal, social and health education programme (PSHE), and its disciplinary policies; to see what medical and counselling services are available; to discover what happens if serious offences are committed; and to find out on what grounds a pupil may be expelled or suspended and when this last happened. You should feel that matters would be dealt with consistently, sympathetically, but firmly, and, above all, fairly.

What are the key rules for boarders over the weekend?
This is a question for either the head or a housemaster or housemistress. It is aimed at finding out as much as possible about what boarders can and cannot do at weekends and the school’s ability to offer a variety of recreational, cultural and social opportunities for all its pupils.

Boarding life and pastoral care 
Who is the first staff member our child should see if there is a problem? Whom can we contact if we are worried about our child’s progress or behaviour or the quality of teaching they are receiving? Does the school have a counsellor?
The right member of staff can deal with many problems immediately. Knowing who that person is and, above all, developing your confidence in them is very important. Most boarding schools have very good pastoral care and counselling systems, and knowing how these operate is very important. These questions will also allow you to find out how well and how often the school communicates with parents, what other means of communication are available and what opportunities there are for visits to the school to meet teachers and other parents.

How good is the catering? Do the pupils have an input into the choice of menu offered? Also how do boarders supplement their eating requirements?
These are questions you should ask the pupil showing you around the school. The general standard of school catering nowadays is remarkably high, with a strong emphasis on balanced, healthy diets. You might like to ask about what kinds of meals are typically available, or if the school is able to cater for any special dietary requirements your child may have.

What medical arrangements does the school have in place?
Obviously, it is important to know what happens in the case of either illness or an emergency or accident, who the school medical staff are, what the facilities include, and when and how parents are informed. Check on what arrangements are made for insurance particularly for sporting fixtures, expeditions and trips, both at home and abroad.

How many pupils in my child’s age group are full boarders? Can I see a typical weekend programme? How many boarders are in school during a normal weekend?
Some schools now offer weekly and/or flexi-boarding, which affects the number of boarders over the weekend. This can mean some children are virtually on their own at weekends as their peers can go home. It is important to find out the average number of boarders remaining in school over a weekend and how they can occupy their time.

How important is the role of chapel in the life of the school?
The chapel will play an important role in school life. Whilst not every pupil will necessarily be expected to participate in the religious services, a great deal can be achieved through the more general assemblies which can also take place in chapel. These play an important part in personal, social, moral and cultural education, and particularly in helping to develop the pupils’ life skills and a sense of care, concern and respect for others. Find out what the school’s policy is on attendance and the range of topics covered in chapel.

After your visit
After any visit, try to discuss with your child your thoughts about the people you met, what you were told and what you saw. Then ask yourself and your child a number of follow-up questions:

• What views did you form of the head, the staff and the pupils?
• What sort of leadership was provided?
• How did the aims and objectives of the school appear in practice?
• Was there a good rapport between pupils and staff?
• Were the pupils well-mannered and enthusiastic about the school?
• Were the rules there to make it a more civilised and caring community?
• Were the staff communicative and did they enjoy their teaching? Did they have control of their classes? What contribution did they make to the life of the school outside the classroom?
• Were the buildings well maintained, was there an absence of litter and were the grounds neat and attractive?
• Was there a generally positive atmosphere about the community?
• Crucially, above all, what did your child make of the school, and does it meet your child’s needs and abilities?

A final tip… it is perfectly acceptable to take notes as you tour the school. Recording your impressions immediately may come in very handy long after the visit when you’ve seen a few schools and they all blur into one!