Independent Schools Guide: How attending an open event can help you choose the right school

When it comes to choosing the right school for a child, there is a wealth of information online, in print media and prospectuses, as well as from the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS).

Picture: St George's School

However, there is no better way to suss out the ethos of a school than to visit it for yourself.

Scotland’s 71 independent schools are highly diverse and differ tremendously. Across the country are co-educational, single-sex, day and boarding institutions, many of which focus on strong academic achievements, while others are committed to developing sporting or creative abilities. Whatever the talent, there is something suited to all individuals.

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Parents and guardians of prospective pupils are encouraged to attend independent school open days, usually held twice a year around March and October.

Dorothy MacGinty, headmistress of Kilgraston School at Bridge of Earn, Perthshire, says: “Every school has its own atmosphere and it is really useful to actually go to visit the school in order to gain a sense of that.

“You can see things in a live open day that can’t be seen online. Things like the relationship between pupils and teachers, the relationships between the pupils themselves. Although families can get loads of information online, they don’t get the same sense of the school.

“When we have an open day, we run a normal lesson so when the parents and prospective pupils attend, they will see what those lessons and activities are like.”

As a result of Covid-19, however, many of these events have moved online, however, attendees will still gain invaluable insight as to what each school can offer for their child.

At the all-through St George’s School in Edinburgh, three online open days will be staged. They will include a combination of pre-recorded presentations from head teacher Alex Hems, other staff members and pupils, as well as a live questions and answers session.

Hems says: “The thing about the virtual open days is that they enable us to reach a greater number of people. The timing can be adapted so, for example, one of these virtual events is specifically for our boarding community and because we are targeting that to overseas families, we can do that at 8am, which will work very well for the overseas audience.”

Indeed, according to SCIS, boarders make up nearly 10 per cent of all pupils educated in the sector, with 35 per cent of boarding pupils coming from 79 different countries.

“It also provides us with a lot of recorded material for people to access in their own time, so that has been enormously helpful,” Hems adds. “We would want to continue a degree of virtual open event activity for that reason; it allows those who don’t live near to the school to access the same opportunities and it means when they do come and visit us, they know a lot about us.”

At George Watson’s College, also in Edinburgh, people will be able to see the campus in person, in a Covid-safe environment.

While the school would usually hold an open day for everyone to attend at the same time, this October visitors will be staggered in groups throughout the day. There will also be a series of online events held later on in the term.

Principal Melvyn Roffe says: “I always say to children to try and envisage themselves in the school and find out what their niche is.

“It is not like buying a car – this is potentially 13 or 14 years of a child’s life and an opportunity to grow within the community, rather than seeing it as one moment at a particular time.

“It is about trying to imagine that and take questions from the people they meet. The schools tend to show off flashy new facilities, which is great, but actually schools are about the relationships between people and that is more of a difficult thing to portray but it can be done.”

At the all-through High School of Dundee, which provides day co-education, parents, guardians and prospective pupils will be able to sign up to a webinar which will have a pre-recorded welcome by rector Lise Hudson, members of senior management and pupils.

On the night prior to the virtual event, a video will provide an online-based tour. Although such tours have come to the fore as a result of Covid-19, Hudson maintains that she has been working to open the school up to the public this way after taking on her role in 2019.

“One of the things that led me to want to create a video is that I wanted to be able to get in behind the pillars and allow people to see the school for what it actually is,” says Hudson.“It is very normal and people are often surprised by that. So for us to have the ability to show that is really important.

“The videos are not glossy nor showy, they are real and they demonstrate and reflect the atmosphere of the school. What we prioritise is the warmth, welcome and inclusion.”

There will also be individual taster days available during term time in the junior and senior schools, where prospective pupils can experience a tailored day to suit their interests.

Hudson adds: “The vast majority of parents have welcomed virtual open and engagement events and feel it fits in better with their lifestyle.”

Not all schools host regular open days, though they aspire to being as open and accessible as possible throughout the year.

Clifton Hall School in Newbridge offers an all-through education for girls and boys, and prides itself on its small size and reduced class numbers to ensure each child’s talents are fully nurtured.

Headmaster Rod Grant says the small school roll will therefore never be expanded, to maintain this ethos. As there is currently a waiting list for a place there, the school refrains from such events.

He states: “To hold an open day feels unfair because you are inviting people to come and look at the school with the possibility that their children may not be able to attend.

“Our unique benefit is our size, so every child knows every other child and every member of staff knows every child and vice versa.

“Schools are built on relationships and if a relationship breaks down in a school, that child becomes unhappy and unable to learn, so for me, size is everything and despite our huge waiting list we will never expand the school.”

That said, people who would like to add their child to the waiting list can arrange a tailored visit to meet Grant for a guided tour and to learn about the wide-ranging opportunities that are available at Clifton Hall.

St Leonards School in St Andrews is Scotland’s first International Baccalaureate continuum school.

Head teacher Simon Brian, who has started in the role this term, says: “Choosing the school that is the right fit for your child is no easy decision to make, and having to do so in the midst of a global pandemic certainly won’t have eased the process, but that said, there is much to be grateful for.

“New approaches to uses of technology have opened up opportunities for virtual tours, they have made choosing an outstanding Scottish boarding experience possible from a distance, and indeed attending open days can now be achieved wherever you are in the world.”

Whatever the chosen school and no matter how much research a guardian puts into selecting one, it is essential they and their child attend open events – in person or virtual – to gain a true insight into its ethos and how best its staff can support and develop each individual.

Upcoming open days

George Watson’s College, Edinburgh

Saturday, 2 October for in-person visits. Online events are on Thursday, 16 September: Meet the Principal; Thursday, 23 September: Admissions and fees; Tuesday, 5 October: Early years; Tuesday, 26 October: Junior; Tuesday, 2 November: Senior; Thursday, 11 November: Seniors upwards of S3.

High School of Dundee

Saturday, 18 September for virtual open morning. Individual visits can be booked later on during term time. Register by calling the school on 01382 202 921.

KILGRASTON SCHOOL, PERTHSHIRE

Saturday, 2 October at 11am for in-person open day. Virtual open days can be accessed online atkilgraston.com where details of how to register can also be found.

St George’s School, Edinburgh

Wednesday, 22 September for junior school and boarding webinars, Thursday, 23 September for upper and lower school webinars. To register, call 0131-311 8008.

St Leonards School,St Andrews,

Saturday, 2 October, whole school online open day. Register online at stleonards-fife.org

The Compass School, Haddington

Saturday, 2 October, virtual open day. Register online atwww.thecompassschool.co.uk

This article first featured in the September 2021 edition of The Scotsman’s Independent Schools Guide. A digital version can be found here.