Education on the whole is a bit of a minefield, and when it comes to private education, it’s as complicated as state, we get mothers asking us if they have to put names down at birth, and I think London’s definitely more challenging than in the countryside. Marina Byrne is a specialist advisor on nursery and pre-prep schools in London and has written us a very interesting piece on the matter.
Finding the right nursery and school for your little one can be pretty tricky to navigate, especially if it is the first time round. To add to the worry you will also start hearing horror stories from friends who have been through the process before and magazine articles highlighting the need to register at birth and how difficult it is to get places at not only the nurseries but also the prep schools. The thought “but my baby isn’t even born yet” and “how can I make decisions about schooling before I have even chosen a name?” will cross your mind. Like me, you may not want to know whether you are having a boy or a girl so it will seem ridiculous to be choosing schools before you know the sex of your baby. Unbelievably, I had a pink and a blue file at the ready and the blue file was thrown into my husband’s hands before my little boy had let out his first scream.
However, though it might all seem ridiculous I was relieved that I had been prepared. The forms were already filled in, cheques were attached and envelopes addressed. My husband popped the forms in the post and made a quick call to each of the nurseries/schools and I passed out. When your baby arrives, the last thing you want to be thinking about or worrying about is schools. You will be pre-occupied with breastfeeding, colic, nappies, routine and sleep or should I say not sleeping. If you have already done some research and made sure that the forms that need to be handed in at birth are ready to go then you can enter that blissful baby bubble and put the thought of schools aside.
My team and I have compiled a list of tips to help you get your head around the system and to hopefully support you in choosing the best nursery and school for your child.
To begin with, before you even step foot out of the house to visit anywhere, download a copy of the school/nursery’s most recent Ofsted or ISI (Independent School Inspectorate) Report and have a read. If you’re short on time, check the rating of the nursery, which will range from Outstanding (grade 1) to Inadequate (grade 4), then flick down to the bottom of the document to have a quick look at the areas in which the school needs to improve. This will give you a very basic understanding of the school or nursery and how it operates.
If you can, it is best to download the two most recent reports and then compare the ‘targets’ sections to see where the school has improved. It is also a great place to start when asking questions. If the school you are visiting has not done much to improve on their list of previous targets, then it is certainly worth some investigation as this could be an indication that they are not fully committed to providing the best for their students.
When visiting a nursery the most important thing is to go with your heart. This might be the first time your baby will be leaving your care and will be surrounded by unfamiliar faces, so ensuring the nursery is a home from home, is essential. No doubt the minute they get there, your child will start having a whale of a time and forget all about you, but either way your first instinct is key.
Some nurseries only offer morning or afternoon places, an important consideration if you are both working parents and you do not have readily available child care at home. Many nurseries insist on a minimum number of mornings per week, and often the minimum number increases as the child progresses. This is important as it eases your child into going to nursery school five days a week, and prepares them for longer days without rest.
Upon visiting the nursery, there are a few overriding factors that need to form the focus of your trip.
- Do the children appear stimulated and engrossed by the activities they are being presented with and are the staff engaging, enthusiastic and interested themselves? Passionate, devoted staff will be the reason your child looks forward to going to nursery and ultimately looks forward to learning, so this is key.
- How many of these staff are qualified? Another significant area of discussion should be about staff turnover and the level of involvement of the head teacher. Frequent staff turnover should set off alarm bells as this may imply an unhappy environment, but also an inconsistent one – and as any parent knows, consistency and routine are essential for young children.
- Is it a Montessori school? Read up on the methods used at Montessori nurseries and see if you think it will work for your child. You can read all about it here.
- Is the nursery conveniently located, either within walking distance of your home or does it provide close access parking? You don’t want the hassle of having to search for a parking spot for half an hour.
- What is the protocol if your little one becomes unwell during the day? What happens, if for some reason, they are unable to get hold of you or another family member?
- Are meals provided on site and is the produce fresh or tinned?
- How much, if any, outdoor space is offered?
- Does it feel clean, secure and nurturing?
Pre-prep and Prep School
Choosing pre-prep/prep schools is something else you need to consider. All the schools have different entrance procedures; some have a first come first served registration process, others do a ballot and the rest will informally assess your children while they are still at nursery. In most cases, early registration is advisable.
Some questions you will need to ask yourself when considering your choices:
- Where are you going to live and are you likely to move? I often get calls from parents who applied for schools in the area they lived in when their baby was born and when they move they find themselves lost for places.
- Are you looking for a single sex or co-educational environment for your child? This is where it gets a little complicated as most boys schools in London end at 7 or 8 and your son will have to take the highly competitive 7+ or 8+ exam to a prep school. Most girls schools start at 4+ and girls do not leave until they are 11 years old and co-educational schools tend to start at 4+ and end at 13 years, when the children then take the 13+ common entrance exam.
- It is important to read up on the head teachers of the schools you are interested in applying for. They are essential to the smooth running of a school and can transform results, sporting programs; the arts and most importantly, are central to a happy, fun-loving environment. I have come across a number of prep schools that have rocketed to success as the result of a devoted and capable head.
- If you have specific ideas about the type of education that you would like your child to be exposed to, for example ICT or Art, it might be worth checking out the facilities and equipment available to the children. No doubt this will dramatically change by the time your baba is ready to go to school, but it is a good indicator of the direction the school is moving in.
- Finally, the best advice I can give you is to go to visit the schools you are interested in. Similar to your visits to the nurseries, your instincts will provide you with your initial view about a school and whether you are keen for your little one to be part of that environment!
If you feel a little bewildered and disillusioned by the whole process, and find yourself beginning to stress and worry, please feel free to get in touch, anytime. Having been in the education world for twenty years and having gone through the whole system a few times, we are well placed to offer advice and help to any soon-to-be mummies and daddies. The process can be daunting, however, we can and do support many parents through it- making it an interesting and stress-free journey.