Independent Schools Guide: Getting geared up for a bit of show and tell

With more than 70 Scottish Council of Independent School members to choose from, including 19 boarding schools and eight gender-specific schools, there is a lot to consider when selecting the right fit for a child.
Nurturing young shoots at Kilgraston School. A good way of getting a feel for a place of learning is to talk to its staff and pupilsNurturing young shoots at Kilgraston School. A good way of getting a feel for a place of learning is to talk to its staff and pupils
Nurturing young shoots at Kilgraston School. A good way of getting a feel for a place of learning is to talk to its staff and pupils

Academic offerings range from Highers to A-levels and the International Baccalaureate, while some schools place greater emphasis on the co-curricular.

There are also faith-based options, such as the Newcraighall-based Christian Regius School, and those that are subject specific, including St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh.

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In addition, there are those dedicated to younger years, including prep schools such as Fettes College in Edinburgh, St Mary’s School in Melrose, and The Compass School in Haddington.

About 4 per cent of pupils in Scotland attend an independent school and their journey almost always begins with an open event or taster day.

At the all-boys Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, about 65 per cent of pupils are boarders and so an open day there provides a realistic impression of the school at work on a normal Saturday morning.

“[Visitors] get the chance to visit the school, meet the staff and see the school in action,” says Merchiston Castle’s headmaster, Jonathan Anderson. “They will get a chance to see the grounds and the buildings, but most importantly they get to see the school running, meet the boys and learn a bit more about what life is really like here.”

While parents and guardians will have the final say, an open day is vital for the individual prospective pupil in experiencing the school and learning how it would benefit them.

Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS) is a day and boarding school which claims to be the largest family of independent schools in Europe.

Its Junior School is mixed, then the boys move on to Stewart’s Melville College and the girls to Mary Erskine School, before reuniting for a co-educational Sixth Form.

ESMS’ principal, Linda Moule, explains: “Last year, we were delighted to be able to invite families into school again for our open day. It is a real family event with lots of opportunities to get involved in the many activities we offer here.

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“Children can engage in a Warhammer fantasy battle, experience our virtual reality headsets, and even take control over their own robot with our Coding Club. Our tours are done by our pupils, who know the school best.

“They will show you their favourite spots and guide you around our state-of-the-art facilities. You will also be able to watch classes in action and chat to our teachers about the academic opportunities.”

So what should parents and prospective pupils consider when attending such an event?

“The measure of any school should be made by meeting the young people who go there,” advises Charlie Minogue, who will take on the role of head at Fettes College Preparatory School in September.

“Parents might look for kind, confident individuals, capable of thinking for themselves and who are interested in the world around them. We all want our young people to have developed interests and passions that might take them down interesting paths later in life and, fundamentally, to be decent people with whom others want to work and be with.”

Andrew McGarva, rector at the Crieff-based day school Morrison’s Academy, offers similar advice: “When you go to any school, they talk about the great co-curricular activities, resources, exam results, and parents should find the thing that makes the school stand out.

“I love the fact that at Morrison’s we are an all-through school so educate those from age two to 18, which means we can curate the whole journey.

“There are very effective transitions across each age and stage. For us as a school we try to maintain that golden thread and that provides a continuity of experience for our children.”

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While many schools have fixed dates for open days at certain points of the year, visits are not restricted solely to these events.

At the High School of Dundee, set in the city’s “education quarter”, rector Lise Hudson maintains that every day is an open day, with the school working with families in ways that work best for them.

She explains: “Every day is an open day and we are running tours and taster days and responding to interest in the school. We’re doing our very best to make that a bespoke experience – different families want to engage in different ways.

“Some will want to come in and have a discussion with us without their child involved, and others will want the opposite.

“We want to give them an experience that will provide an insight into the school. We are as open as we can be.”

As the last two years has demonstrated, it is not always possible to attend a school in person and so many have adapted to ensure prospective pupils from both abroad and closer to home can experience the school in innovative ways.

“Covid restrictions are still in place in Scotland, presenting independent schools with a challenge when offering visits,” explains Mark Lauder, headmaster of Strathallan School in Forgandenny, Perthshire.

“However, our admissions team has put together a rich experience utilising VR technology and some clever solutions to allow prospective families the opportunity to meet with everyone they need to and see all areas of the school.”

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He advises prospective pupils and their parents to do as much research as possible ahead of any visit to ensure the right questions can be asked on the day, noting that a school’s website and social media channels can offer great insight.

George Watson’s College in Edinburgh has also seen success in its inventive methods of tackling restrictions around in-person visits.

The school’s principal, Melvyn Roffe, states: “Some of the things we have put in place for Covid have actually been very popular, so we expect that, while we will have an open morning in October, it will not be the only form of engagement with prospective students. There will be a variety of online sessions.

“It is a hybrid approach, but for parents for whom a morning trip around the school isn’t very convenient, or those coming from a distance, our online events mean they can get a flavour of the school before they come in person at a different time.”

Whether in-person or online, Mark Becher, head at The Compass School in Haddington, concludes: “It is important for parents to spend time with the people who will be working with their children. We hope here at The Compass that they find the people they speak to are very knowledgeable and very much people people.

Open days

Glenalmond College

Open day Saturday, 19 March

Kilgraston School

Virtual open day video can be viewed online at


Open morning Saturday,19 March

Morrison’s Academy

P6-S2 open morning Saturday,26 March. Whole school open morning Saturday, 23 April

St George’s School

September. Virtual open day videos can be found online

St Leonard’s School

Junior open day Monday, 2 May

St Mary’s Music School

Digital open day Sunday, 6 March and Wednesday, 20 April

The Compass School

Open day Saturday, 12 March

The High School of Dundee

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