Independent Schools Guide: A wide open invitation

The best way to assess a school’s suitability for a child is to visit it, writes Sarah Devine

The High School of Glasgow juniors will welcome visitors from 9-13 March

A school’s website and prospectus can only provide so much information about its ethos and aims, so it is essential to attend an open day or a school visit in order to secure the best learning environment for a child.

Each of Scotland’s independent schools truly is unique, with their own long-standing ethos and teaching styles. Most hold open days twice a year, usually around March and October, and almost all encourage parents and guardians to arrange an individual visit as well as taster days for pupils to see if the school feels right for them.

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Dr Michael Carslaw, headmaster at St Leonards School in St Andrews, which features Scotland’s only International Baccalaureate sixth form, says that every day at the school is treated as an open day.

Erskine Stewart's Melville's next Open Day is in September

He explains: “Parents shouldn’t feel restricted to coming in for a specific day, they are very welcome to attend individual visits whenever suits them. The idea behind opening up the school to parents is to help them on a journey and allow them to get to know the school as well as possible.

“Open days are very much part of that, but so are specific visits, Skype interviews or whatever else is required, because it is a big decision for parents and pupils.”

On an open day, the priority should be to gain a feel for the school to assess if the environment is best suited to the child. Current pupils will be on hand to share their own experiences and act as guides, while teachers will also be there to provide detailed information.

Visitors will usually be taken on a tour of the grounds and facilities by those guides, and later be met by the head teacher. But parents and guardians should be as prepared as possible to make the most of the occasion.

“It is important that they consider what it is they want to find out about the school before they go,” advises Mark Becher, headmaster at East Lothian’s only independent primary school, the Compass School in Haddington.

“Parents should not worry about referring to notes on the day, and the schools will be well aware of the questions they are most likely to ask.

“It is really important to think about the child and what is important to them. If it is a primary setting, think about how the school prepares the child for secondary school, how the resources are used as well as the level of support given.”

And when it comes to what to ask on a school visit, Becher says there is no such thing as a silly question. They can be as specific as asking about the school’s approach to a certain subject and the level of support available, to what makes the school stand out from the rest.

Although staff will be able to answer the fundamental questions, it is the pupils themselves who will provide the most information as they will be able to say what they like about the school, and how the lessons and activities are helping them towards their goals.

At Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, the open morning is a typical working Saturday and tours are provided by the pupils. Visitors will hear from the school’s musicians and experience a short presentation about different aspects of Merchiston, followed by a reception with staff members.

Headmaster Jonathan Anderson says: “It’s important to ask as many questions of as many people as possible, particularly the pupils. They will give an honest appraisal of what life is like at the school and will often be picked because they will be engaged, talkative, open and chatty assistants, and parents will gain a sense of how much they enjoy the school and what they like about it.”

While a school will certainly shine on a planned open day, the majority of those in the sector believe it is worth attending a visit on a typical school day to see the day-to-day basics. This way parents can see the true interactions between the pupils and staff as well as what a normal day looks like.

“I would always ask them to come and visit us on a normal working day because they will get a tour from our pupils and they are in no way primed,” explains George Salmond, headmaster of the junior school of George Watson’s College, in Edinburgh.

“It is the pupils who sell the school so well, and it is not just from parents seeing those pupils doing the tour, but also those other children and how they are engaging with staff and visitors. That’s always a powerful message.”

Pointing to specific events such as plays, concerts and sports matches, Alex Hems, headmistress at St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, says: “We have a lot of smaller events run by particular parts of the school so I think it is worth being at those. In our lower school, we have open events in November and in June, and we have an activities morning in the junior school in March. Those are probably more useful as you get an experience of that particular part of the school you are interested in.”

Not all schools host formal open days, with some preferring individual visits on a fully-working school day. Clifton Hall is an all-through day school which prides itself on small classes and small teacher-to-pupil ratios. As its roll never expands beyond 440, the Edinburgh school takes pupils on a “first come first served” basis and so has stopped running open days. Instead, personal visits can be arranged.

Headmaster Rod Grant explains: “They’ll get to chat with me and I will tell them about the school then they go on a 20-minute or so tour of the school and a follow-up of any questions. They are here for an hour, and they spend that hour with me, but can experience the school on a normal working day and see how the pupils engage.”

He adds: “What parents have to decide is which school will fit my child best. Is the school happy, relaxed but academically rigorous at the same time? It’s about feeling – don’t look at one school, look at four and at the end of that process you’ll know which one fits best.”

Upcoming open days

Merchiston Castle School

Saturday, 29 February

St Leonards School junior school

Friday, 8 May

Edinburgh Steiner School

Friday, 6 March

Strathallan School

Saturday, 7 March

The Compass School

Thursday, 12 March

High School of Glasgow

Monday, 9 March – Friday 13 March

St George’s School for Girls junior school Saturday, 14 March

Wellington School Saturday, 2 May

Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools Saturday, 26 September