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Hand raised in school classroom17 January 2023

Some things never change. Certain topics are always at the forefront of a parent’s thoughts when researching a new school. How good is the academic performance? What extra-curricular options are available? Do the pupils get much homework? We have plenty more general questions to ask a prospective school. These are perennial issues for schools and families but there’s nothing like a new year to remind us of time’s constant onwards thrust and the change it generates. It’s inevitable that the ever-shifting landscape of your children’s education throws up new quandaries and questions for both you and them.  

We’ve chosen our top 6 questions to put to staff and pupils when you visit a prospective school in 2023. 

1. What does the future hold for school fees?

Big annual increases in fees have been the norm for decades but now there’s an energy crisis, a requirement to increase contributions to teachers’ pensions and inflation beyond anything most of us have seen. Add to that formula the likelihood in the next two years of a Labour government intent on removing tax breaks for private schools; you don’t need a crystal ball to work out that school fees will, by necessity, experience even heftier hikes in the coming years - we last wrote in detail on the future of school fees in November 2021 but so much has changed since. Any prospective parent is entitled to ask questions about the school fees. At what rate are they likely to rise? Is the school able to absorb the added costs if Labour's proposed policy comes to fruition? How available is bursarial support for established pupils should fees rise too sharply for families to keep up? 

2. What non-examined subjects are offered?

Rishi Sunak recently announced his proposal to get all children studying maths until they leave school. The plans seem unlikely to demand that every pupil sits maths A level, but rather continue studying the subject because of the skills it can bring later to professional life. Non-examined subjects are a rarity these days, as is education for the sake of education. Parents may want to find out from schools which subjects are offered purely for the purpose of life-enrichening, thought-developing and brain-stretching. Our review describes such a subject, ‘Div’ at Winchester College as a ‘truly educative and inspiring constant in pupils’ lives’. Other schools, such as Oundle with its Trivium and Quadrivium courses, Harrow with its ‘Harrow Diploma’ and Putney High School’s Athena Programme, make sure that similar concepts are given prominence in the timetable.  

3. What’s your policy on ChatGPT Artificial Intelligence essay writing?

That’s Generative Pre-trained Transformer to you and me. Launched at the end of 2022 and something anyone with school-age children or working in a school should be aware of. Plagiarism and schools’ methods at countering it are nothing new, particularly in essay-writing subjects, but this free online chatbot poses a new challenge for teachers. It combines the vast wealth of knowledge available on the web with artificial intelligence to craft human-like responses to questions. This means that a pupil struggling to write their essay on jealousy in Othello, the failure of the Chartists, or the human factors in coastal erosion, can just type their question into the website and within seconds receive an answer ready to be passed off as their own work. Is it a good answer? The short answer to that is, sometimes.

New York City’s education department has just banned the website from its schools’ computers and others will follow suite. There will be positives to come from this technology but for the moment, how schools manage issues such as the use of ChatGPT and its inevitable successors is surely now a question all parents should be considering.  

4. How secure is the future of your primary school?

It seems like only yesterday we were writing about families in England suffering from a shortage of primary school places but the birth rate which peaked eleven years into the new millennium – the resulting demographic bulge now stretching secondary schools - looks very different these days. More than 100,000 fewer babies were born in England and Wales in 2021 than in 2011 and this freefalling figure looks set to impact families’ school choices in a different way over the next few years. Schools get the vast majority of their funding on a per-pupil basis. Fewer children means less need for primary school places, inevitably leading to schools merging, shrinking and closing. Most recently it was reported that London could be worst affected but this is likely to impact much of the country. For parents going round primary school open days, asking questions about a school’s future and any contingency plans it may have in the face of dwindling pupil numbers should be a priority.  

5. How are your Oxbridge numbers?

Private schools have had to confront the fact that their pupils are facing a trickier time winning places at Oxbridge and other leading UK universities than has traditionally been the case. Contextualised admissions have resulted in increased offers for applicants from less privileged schools and backgrounds and that means fewer places are available to pupils from academic private schools. Is this trend reflected in the schools you’re interested in and if so, what advice is the school offering to pupils and their families about alternatives to make sure that the brightest children can still move on to the world’s best universities?  

6. What are you doing to combat misogyny?

Provocative misogynist, professional kickboxer and social media influencer, Andrew Tate, has been in the headlines for much of the last year, most recently due to his arrest in Romania as part of an investigation into human trafficking and rape. He is also, along with a host of other online personalities who espouse similar views, something of a role model for many teenage boys. His online videos show a glamorous life of strong men, fast cars and model girlfriends and play out alongside his opinions advocating violence against women. Teachers have reported this translating into playground chat and classroom behaviour. Schools are uniquely placed to deal with issues like this and some have already introduced programmes to tackle the surrounding issues. As ever, unless expressly set up by parents at home, there are very few restrictions in place to stop children viewing such content online. Asking questions about how a school combats misogyny and other real-life behaviour emanating from social media should be a priority.  

No one can know how the new year will run its course but 2023 is certain to throw up more educational talking points and questions to put to schools. You can be sure that parents who are engaged, tuned-in to current issues, and willing to ask these questions are an asset to any school.  


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