Choosing the right school: why London parents should look beyond the M25

Head of Prep, Will Dunlop, writes for the education consultancy William Clarence

When I worked in a London day school I taught a boy – I will call him Adam, but that’s not his real name – who had virtually no meaningful contact with his parents from Monday to Friday.  They were delightful people, but the demands of their professional lives were such that they were rarely at home when their son was awake. As far as Adam was concerned, during the week home was little more than somewhere to sleep and eat.  He was looked after by a nanny and spent his evenings being ferried around a range of clubs and activities that filled the time between school and sleep. His attainment suffered because he did not get the support he needed with his homework.  Even more worryingly, he was world-weary at the age of 12. I thought then, and I know now, that he would have been better off boarding. His parents simply did not consider it. Why not?

Perhaps Adam’s parents based their choice league tables.  There is no doubt that selective London day schools dominate the upper echelons of the league tables, but with demand outstripping supply within the M25 schools can afford to choose the pupils who suit them.  League tables say more about the selectiveness of the school than they do about the quality of education. What is more, schools in London have little incentive to be different. A plentiful supply of prospective pupils mean that they have less of a need to be unique in some regard.  There are notable exceptions to this rule within London – but there are far more outside it. In my experience schools in more rural areas tend to have a much greater regard for the things that make them unique. As a result, within the M25 parents tend to look for a good school while beyond it they can look for the right school.  This is not necessarily the same thing, and the benefits of the latter course of action are inestimable.

Perhaps Adam’s parents did not understand what modern boarding is like.  The days of cold showers and soul-less dormitories are long gone – why would any parent pay for that?  Nor is it true to say that all boarding schools are all filled with the children of foreign oligarchs. Most of the boarding parents in my school (and in many others) are hard-working professional people who want to provide the best possible upbringing for their children.  They know that during the week their children will be in a safe, homely environment with lots of friends around them, cared for by specialist staff who know them well and who are very often parents themselves. The professional lives of most boarding parents are such that they could not provide the same experience at home.

Perhaps Adam’s parents did not understand how happy a rural childhood can be.  This would not be a surprise, given that over 80% of the UK population lives in an urban environment.  Boarders joining my school from London are blown away by the amount of green space they have available to them, by the amount of sport they play and by the activities open to them.  Within a month their parents notice how much healthier and happier they are, and I have no doubt that this builds on the effect of excellent teaching to improve attainment. Many parents enjoy regular visits to school, partly because we give them an excellent lunch and partly because our rural environment provides a welcome relief from London at the end of a busy week.  Professional parents’ lives become less stressful, and that contributes to the quality of family life. It is often not long before a visit to school is combined with a visit to the local estate agents!

The great news for parents – and for children – is that there is a vast array of outstanding schools within easy reach of the capital, each with its own character.  There are so many, in fact, that the services of a good school placement agency can be invaluable in finding the right one for your child.  Getting that choice right is probably the single most important decision you will make as a parent, so my advice to you is to look at all the options.  You may well find that what you are looking for is not quite where you were expecting to find it, but I am quite sure that you will be surprised and delighted by what you find beyond the M25.