How to choose the best private school - Hurstpierpoint College

How to choose the best private school

Headmaster standing in chapel with pupils sat on benches“Ah, so you are a Headmaster? Perhaps you can tell me which private schools are the best near me or further afield if I am looking at boarding options?”

Amongst parents of school age children, I suspect that the question of ‘which is the best school?’ continues to be at the forefront of their minds even in these troubled times. Certainly, that is how it seems to me when I disclose what I do for a living.

Like most heads, I am perfectly happy to chunter on endlessly about schools, staff and their pupils in what is, I suspect, a slightly pompous manner. But what of that key question? In short, excellence in education comes in many shapes and forms – independent, state, academy, free, grammar, single sex, day, boarding, selective, non-selective, urban, rural, big, small, etc. There is a vast range and richness of schools out there and no one definitive model for an excellent school which trumps all others. But, rather, the key issue is – which school will be the best fit for you and your child.

Although the great names (Eton, Harrow, Marlborough, et al) should give confidence in some sort of quality standard, there is no single school which is right for every pupil. However, one can hazard that there are certain attributes which all good schools share and it is on these that parents should begin to base their choice in order to find the best private school for their child.

Prep School girl drilling hole into wood and teacher helpingFirst and foremost, must be the quality of teaching and coaching available, not just for sport but for every aspect of school life, whether that is academic, creative, pastoral or social. Well-qualified, highly motivated and caring teachers are key to being a top private school. Good schools are able to attract, manage and inspire such individuals and number one amongst these staff will be the Head. Gone are the days of the Olympian Heads of old when, as Churchill said, they had “powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers had never yet been invested.’’ But, a Head can energise a Common Room and just as easily demoralise and destroy it.

As for the Common Room, ideally this should have a balance of ages and stages – the young and enthusiastic, the battle hardened and wise veterans, together with the ambitious young thrusters, moving ever onward and upward. There should be a healthy turnover of staff as some move on and out to bigger responsibilities or different experiences, to be replaced by fresh blood. And the primary purpose of these staff? Boy playing hockeyTo provide a wide range of opportunities which are not restricted just to the elites. Genuine access for all children is vital to their development. Find out how the B and C teams fare in fixtures. Do they receive decent coaching and a good match list? Is the orchestra only open to those with a Grade 8 on their instrument? Is there a sufficient flow of plays and productions to involve a wide range of pupils in a wide range of activities? In short, will young Hector or Jemima be able to get involved in every aspect of school life in a meaningful and rewarding way?

On your journey to discover the best private school for you child, make sure to visit a variety in your area or further afield. At Open Mornings (remember those?), prospective parents will be dazzled with the menu of activities on offer but do not be taken in. What does it matter to you and your child if a school wins every sporting/creative trophy in town, but your own child is shut out of any such experience? And this brings me to ethos. What is the ethos of the school? In a good school, it will be articulated clearly by the Head and instinctively absorbed and followed by the staff and, one hopes, the pupils. Does the school cater for the individual or is it only interested in the high achieving elite? Always be wary of a Head who trumpets the latest innovation, the latest success and league table position.

Boy in harness getting ready to abseilA good independent school is ambitious for all its children to achieve their own ‘personal best’ in every aspect of life in which they are involved. Be wary of the school which is ambitious for itself or its Head. This may well end up being in conflict with your own child’s future. Regrettably, there are still too many John F Kennedy schools – “Ask not what our school can do for your child, but what your child can do for our school.” A good school will value your child for who he or she is and will make the most of him and her irrespective of their weaknesses and any turbulence along the way. In addition, they will not solely exploit their key strengths to the school’s advantage, but will endeavour to extend them into other areas. Will the school encourage its pupils to take the initiative, make things happen, take risks (of the right sort) and be intelligently independent?

Ultimately, school is not an end in itself but a springboard into a young person’s future. Schools must deliver on the academic side of life as those grades are key to opening the next door. However, good independent schools also recognise the importance of developing an individual and, in particular, those skills, qualities and, indeed, values which will bring their alumni success and happiness in later life. This is a tall order and no school is perfect. However, the best private schools are those that have integrity, humility and a constant desire to learn, innovate and improve. Of my last two schools (Sevenoaks in Kent and Oakham in Rutland), what set them apart was the desire, in both schools, to constantly improve what they did for their pupils, not least through a sense of fear that failure to do so would mean that they would be overtaken by the neighbouring big brand names (Tonbridge and Uppingham). Complacency and unthinking conservatism are the great destroyers of any institution and even the greatest schools of today will soon be brought low by them.

Four Prep School girls in the playground laughingSo, which is the best school for your child? Go and visit, when the current virus situation allows, and in the meantime take a look at school videos or take a virtual tour. Make a mental checklist, look out for the signs but, at the end of the day, your decision will be based on both the cerebral judgement and gut instinct of you and your child. Most importantly, what does it feel like? Good schools have an indefinable buzz, openness and “can do” mentality which comes from pupils doing and achieving to the best of their ability and, as a result, feeling both happy and confident. Don’t be swayed by popular opinion but trust your own research and instincts. It is unlikely that these combined will be wrong.

Written by Tim Manly, Headmaster at Hurstpierpoint College


Please follow the links below for further information about Hurstpierpoint College, an independent, co-educational, day and boarding school for pupils aged 4–18, located just to the north of the village of Hurstpierpoint, West Sussex.

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