Independent Schools Guide: Choose to play to your child's special strengths

There are 71 members of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), all of which are widely distinct to ensure the right fit can be found for every child.

The sector educates almost 30,000 pupils, meaning that 3.9 per cent of Scotland’s pupils attend an independent school, according to the latest SCIS annual census.

Despite the obvious recent challenges, there are no signs of that figure dropping. So what makes the sector particularly appealing to families?

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“It is the choice available,” says SCIS director John Edward. “It is being able to find a school that fits the child rather than the other way round.

Plucky lad: music is just one of a long list of subjects and activities offered by George Watson’s College, where prospective pupils and parents are encouraged to visit and explore for themselves
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“We have schools that have half a dozen pupils in them and schools with more than 2,000 pupils in them. We have schools that do Scottish exams, English exams or International Baccalaureate, or a combination of two or three.

“In the special needs sector, we have schools that do ASDAN, National 4, and much more.”

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Information can be found on each individual school’s website, in leaflets and prospectuses, however, the best way to find that right fit is attending the school in person.

Such visits were temporarily suspended due to Covid-19 restrictions, but this term the doors are very much wide open.

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“During the last few years, we have been doing online open days and they are really massive bursts of information,” says Andrew J McGarva, rector at Morrison’s Academy in Crieff, Perthshire – which recently began offering the Peter Jones Foundation for Enterprise’s business and enterprise programme.

“This time, people are coming to see the school as it is and meet the pupils, parents and teachers. That provides a sense of how the school runs and its ethos and community. That is really important because that is the essence of who we are.”

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A day school that embraces its countryside surroundings, McGarva emphasises that Morrison’s supports family life by allowing pupils to benefit from time spent with their kinfolk around school hours.

Also providing day education is the High School of Dundee, where pupils can enjoy a city centre location and engage with local businesses to focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), as well as creative subjects.

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Rector Lise Hudson stresses that visitors are welcome throughout the year, but the school’s open day is a chance for engagement with its staff and pupils.

“The transactional elements are easy for parents to find out about, such as what kind of school we are, what our vision and strategy is, what we are committed to. The thing that is more in the ether is just that sense of whether or not this is an environment in which your child can thrive.”

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High School of Dundee pupils guide each family on their tour, and Hudson suggests parents ask both pupils and staff as many questions as possible. “The decision they are making is very significant and so we expect parents to come in and interrogate us, given the investment they are making,” she adds.

Echoing this advice is Mark Becher, headmaster at The Compass School in Haddington. This small East Lothian primary school prepares youngsters for secondary education and has recently been enjoying trips overseas as well as closer to home, following the lifting of pandemic restrictions.

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Becher maintains: “When you go round on the open day there is so much to see and do, so we are not at all uncomfortable if parents want to pull out their notebook or phone and ask questions. These are the questions that are important to them and for me, it is important they have a chance to ask them.

“By having our school guides there, parents can see clear evidence of children being confident, independent and passionate about their school, and loving the interaction with visitors.”

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Melvyn Roffe, principal at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, is also in broad agreement: “The main thing we encourage people to do is take a good walk around the campus, meet many of the people, and try to see yourself here and find out where you see yourself within the school in a few years’ time.”

When joining the college, pupils are encouraged to focus on the excitement of becoming a Watsonian, and there is a buddy system in place at the school to remove any anxieties.

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Elsewhere in in Edinburgh,St George’s School is an all-girls day and boarding school, with boys in nursery to P3.

Carol Chandler-Thompson became its new head teacher last month and is impressed by the family atmosphere in its Houldsworth boarding house, where buddies and a busy weekly schedule of activities ensure children settle in well.

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“If I was advising my own daughter, I would be asking her to look at the relationships in the school and see how the students relate to the staff and to each other,” she explains. “How well known are the students in the school? That says a lot about the quality of the relationships and pastoral care in the school.”

For those considering a single-sex education, Chandler-Thompson says the presence of role models is empowering: “There is a complete absence of gender stereotyping. Everything here is for girls: football, hockey, physics, cooking, maths.”

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She argues that girls’-only education is still pioneering – not because of the concept, but in the ways it listens to pupils’ voices – and points to the school’s growing alumni network which supportsSt George’s students and each other.

If an international curriculum is a priority, the virtual and in-person open day at the all-throughSt Leonards School in St Andrews will be of interest. Recognised as being Scotland’s International Baccalaureate (IB) leader, it is the only one in Scotland to offer the IB Sixth Form Diploma Programme and its Career-related Programme.

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“The two pathways mean young people can really tailor their own learning, and enquire about what interests them,” says St Leonards’ head, Simon Brian. “With the IB, we really can get into a real depth of really meaningful learning with our young people.

“We find that the IB curriculum, in terms of the process, really properly prepares our young people for life and gives them a qualification to access any university around the world.”

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The IB is also favoured by Fairview International School at Bridge of Allan, Stirling. Nestled in wooded countryside, it is a co-educational school for all ages.

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“We invite you to explore our campus, and start your IB journey at our upcoming Open Day on Thursday, 27 October,” says head teacher David Hicks.

“As part of an international family of schools, we offer an ‘open all year round’ admissions process, to allow families from across the globe to relocate with ease.

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“You can also get in touch by emailing [email protected], or calling 01786 231951 to learn more about what Fairview International School has to offer.”

For some independent institutions, a bespoke tailored visit is preferred. Wellington School in Ayr hosts visits on an individual basis throughout the year, and allocates them to times that suits families best.

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Headmaster Simon Johnson says: “It is better for people to make individual visits. In the last six months, the frequency of families visiting is the highest that I have ever known in seven years. We push for individual visits so they have an experience that is a bit more tailored to them.”

Wellington prides itself on its rich international programme, and recently the all-through day school has received generous funding from the new Turing Scheme for international opportunities in education.

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The school also promotes its approach of catering for the individual. Johnson concludes: “We see ourselves very much as a family school that is nurturing based on the fact that everybody here knows each other very well, and all the staff know the pupils.

“The size of our school means that there are no invisible childrenhere – all will receive support.”

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Open days

Fettes College, Edinburgh

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Sunday, 9 October

Fairview International School,Bridge of allan

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Thursday, 27 October

George Watson’s College, Edinburgh

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Saturday, 1 October

High School of Dundee

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Saturday, 17 September

Morrison’s Academy,Crieff

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Saturday, 24 September

St George’s School, Edinburgh

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Wednesday, 21 September (virtual), Friday, 23 September and Wednesday,28 September(both in person)

St Leonard’s School,St Andrews

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Saturday, 1 October

The Compass School, Haddington

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Saturday, 1 October