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Article published 14th May 2008

Each school as unique as your child? Give a great deal of thought to what sort of character you want your child to turn out to be.

Do not be taken in by charming heads or their marketing genies entertaining you with Power-Point presentations and handing out videos (always taken on sunny days and always displaying the best of everything).

Schools are quick to point-out all that is great and heads have a politician's knack of avoiding awkward questions; so just how do you uncover the truth? That's where The Good Schools Guide can help...

Sublime or substandard?

Any parent trying to choose a boarding school for their child is encouraged to read the lively reviews in The Good Schools Guide (either in the printed guide or here, on-line for subscribers) which does its best to draw this character of each school out and to give a clear idea of what the school is like BEFORE you visit.

Years of great feedback (and constant parental insights) tell us it really does help you find and choose the right school for your child. It's not just schools we write about, there are a good many articles designed to help you make the right school choice for your child.

Don't just look at the present, have a clear view of where you want your child to go on to next. All schools publish lists of where their pupils go on to and, if the education that they provide and the spirit that they inculcate is capable of taking your child where you want them to go, then other children will have gone that way before, probably in some numbers.

The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants works one-to-one with parents to demystify the process and offers expert and knowledgeable help in choosing the best schools (at home and overseas). We can guide you through the application process. Call: 0203 286 6824 or email: consultants@goodschoolsguide.co.uk.

The overseas boarding school option

Remember that not all boarding schools are in the UK. Most European countries have one or two, Switzerland has some which follow the English academic syllabus and so do many of the Middle and Far Eastern countries. Some follow the trad British A level syllabus and some the IB. Ditto Australia and New Zealand (which have several really great boarding schools). There’s less boarding in the Americas, though the US has one or two and so does Canada as do some of the countries in South America, particularly those which came under British influence in the past. And then there’s Africa. There are schools in South Africa that are so exactly British they’re the only real difference is the minuscule fees.

We recommend The Good Schools Guide International as the ideal resource for British and international schools overseas and ex-pat advice.

For families from outside the UK, one of the first things that you have to look at is the weekend leave-out arrangements (‘exeats’). Most schools (prep schools in particular) now close down for the weekend every other week or two. If there are no handy grandparents, godparents or accommodating family friends you must find a guardian. Many schools have a list of wonderful tried and trusted guardians who have taken dozens of tinnies under their wing, turn up for speech days and school performances and really provide a second home. But we have heard of a number of distinctly commercial guardians who charge the earth, restrict their input to the barest minimum and bill for each expense and extra hour.

Exeats and unexpected 'holidays'

If your child is likely to find itself at school on weekends when many have departed, be sure to enquire closely how many other children will be in the same position and how they will be occupied. Very few schools provide cover during exeats. Expect exeats or leave-outs to occur either side of half-terms.

And what happens (perish the thought) if your little darling sins and is sent home to cool the heels? Doting relatives may quite like the idea of having them round the house but your commercial guardian now, that is a problem. Some are fine and some, well…

Sleeping and travel arrangements

If you are not an expat you will want to know how many other pupils from your country there are and whether arrangements are made for children from the same country to be in different dormitories. (Otherwise they form cliques, never learn English and might as well have stayed at home). And while on the subject of dormitories, will your child have any real privacy at all?

Look at traveling logistics, particularly if you want to turn up for the school play. Cheapo air fares have done wonders for the UK boarding system. Think Stansted, think East Midlands, think Edinburgh or Glasgow – long- and short-haul flights land at these places regularly, so you are not restricted to Heathrow and the M4 corridor.

Visiting the school

All parents should be sure to meet the head, your child’s houseparents and the matron. These last three are the ones who really make a difference to the day-to-day happiness of a boarder. And if your child is to have a tutor who stays with them throughout their time at school, meet them too. Get the home phone number of whoever has charge of your child’s welfare, and ask if you can call at any time.

Ask how parent and child communicate. Weekly letter? A phone for each fifty pupils? Or nightly emails and a mobile phone?

This is definitely something to talk to pupils about when you visit.

Be relentlessly questioning about any requirements which are particular to you. If your child has special educational needs (and there are many boarding schools in the UK which make superb provision for these) you will need to know exactly what is on offer and how the school proposes to make you part of the decision-making process on such questions as whether to exclude your child from particular lessons. How good are the EFL lessons and how much extra do they cost? What provision do they make for your faith? Don’t just take this on trust, talk to a co-religionist who is already at the school and find out what really happens.

Some problems that are easily tackled by local parents become much harder to deal with when a parent is distant. Discover whether matron will replenish (and mend) school (and home) clothes and if she can do it out of the second-hand shop (and all the while you are sussing up whether matron and the under matrons are cuddly or moustachioed dragons who grump). Find out if boarders are allowed into town at weekends. How does the school control what they get up to? How can parents ditto? It helps a lot if a child has a bolt hole in town where they can go rather than be dragged into some den of iniquity by their friends because they have no alternative. Do you have a friend or relative who is willing to let them have a key?

The same problem of distance applies to bullying. Being able to recharge courage and self-confidence at home makes a child much more resilient in the face of low-level bullying than is the case for a child who has no such resort. Don’t be satisfied with the mere absence of stories about bullying; look for stories (particularly from gentler pupils) about how well bullying is dealt with.

Our editors have experienced boarding schools as expats and as locals, as members of families who have used boarding schools for generations and as parents who are tackling boarding for the first time. All of them confirm that, in the words of one editor, ‘boarding schools are brilliant. Children make friends for life, share the experiences and cultures, and learn tolerance of their fellow man.’ That editor remembers finding her eldest son in tears during his first half-term from prep school:

Mummy, there's no one to play with at home.

That said, there are still many children who end up miserable. You need to take care to match the child to the school and to watch how things develop thereafter. It will be totally obvious if things are going well.

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