Eight questions you should ask before choosing an independent school

By George Watson's College

Many families we meet are thinking carefully about whether an independent school education is right for their children

As we’ve said before, it’s a significant investment to make, similar to buying a house (particularly if you have more than one child). Parents want their children to have the best possible opportunity to build a rewarding, fulfilling life. 

According to the Scottish Council for Independent Schools (SCIS), there are around 30,000 children educated in the sector (2019 census) in 72 different schools. Indeed, Edinburgh’s ten independent schools count for more than third of all children attending a private school in Scotland.

So if you are thinking about an independent school for your family (because it’s not just about your child, it’s a real family commitment) what should you think about?  

Here are eight questions worth asking of any independent school, if you are considering entering the admissions process. 

1. What is your approach and what do you believe in?

It’s a common misconception that every independent school (particularly in Edinburgh) is the same. They’re not.     

Each has unique characteristics which form their approach and culture. You want to understand not only what your child might be learning, but how they will learn, what the environment will be like, and how that feels for you all. 

Understanding a school’s values is an incredibly important thing to consider. It takes time. 

2. What does it (really) cost?

It’s an obvious question, but not all schools have the same approach to fees. There is variance around the cost per child, but actually it’s about a bit more than that. 

As a family, it is really important you consider all of the costs involved, such as fees, trips, or other things that might not be included in the fees. Schools have very different approaches so in planning for such a commitment, it is important to get this information well sourced. 

Watson's is keen to promote accessibility and funds can be available to support places for children whose families would not otherwise be able to afford the fees. Make sure you speak to us early on if you think that this might be helpful to you. It is important that you understand how financial support works and whether you might qualify.

Helpfully, the Admissions, Fees & Financial Assistance event at our George Watson’s College Digital Open Morning will provide real insight into the full picture. 

3. How does the admissions process work?

At Watson's we try to make sure that our admissions experience gives future pupils and their families a good sense of what we are like as a school.

We think there are two practical things to consider.

First, find out what is involved in the process: will there be written tests, group activities, one to one interviews, and what format the sessions will take. 

Second, find out how the school supports children to do their best in the assessment process and how they deal with any access requirements children might have. Any school that invites your child to an assessment should put their mental health and wellbeing at the heart of the process. 

4. What subjects will my child be able to study? 

This is a more complicated question than it might seem.

For Preschools and Primary Schools, find out what system influences the education that is provided. Is it based on the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, the English National Curriculum or the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP). If not, then what? Does the education follow an approach such as the Montessori method, for example?

Never be afraid to ask questions to find out what you need to know.

There will be different questions when it comes to  Senior Schools, including when the transfer from Primary School is best undertaken. Other things you should consider include: 

  • How does the school approach the early years of Senior School? How do they balance the desirability of a broad education with the need to prepare pupils for examinations. 

  • What type of certified courses does that school offer? It might be that they offer Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) courses at National 5, Highers and Advanced Highers; some schools follow the English system of GCSEs and A-Levels; a very small number offer the International Baccalaureate. Some schools offer a combination of options. 

  • What subjects do they offer for these courses and in what combinations? Knowing the approach to certification is one thing, but you will want to know the range of subjects that are available and how likely it is that your child will be able to do the combination of courses they wish. For example, at Watson’s, our 19 curricular departments offer 31 National 5 courses, 32 different Highers, and a further 25 Advanced Highers and these can be available in a wide variety of different combinations to suit most pupils’ needs. 

  • What else do pupils do other than examination courses? We believe it is a mistake to worry too much about the details of courses, especially for younger pupils whose preferences may have changed by the time they come to make decisions in the future. It is important to consider how a school supports broader learning, for example through opportunities to take non-examined courses, extra-curricular clubs which develop pupils’ intellectual interests and events such as lectures and trips.

5. What happens if my child is struggling or excelling with a particular subject or course? 

Most children will find some areas of their learning more difficult than others. Sometimes, they will come to love the things they have struggled with. 

But it can be demoralising to find a subject that doesn’t come to us as easily as others. It can also be demoralising to find a subject that you excel at but don’t have the challenge to push further. 

As a parent, you should ask questions about the good and bad times, when things don’t go according to plan or when they go spectacularly well. 

So, how do teachers make sure that lessons meet everyone’s needs? How can those who struggle get support and those who are flying be helped to go further?  

6. What about league tables? 

Let’s talk about league tables. Parents, teachers and the media talk about them a lot. Actually, pupils tend to be considerably less concerned. 

When we talk about league tables in terms of Scotland we’re referring to the ranking of schools based on examination results. 

Here’s our first tip: don’t read too much into league tables. They can be a useful yardstick to indicate how pupils perform in examinations, but our advice is always to take these things with a pinch of salt. 

But they don’t tell you:

  • What policy the school has for entering pupils for exams. For example, at Watson’s, we do not restrict pupils in terms of the subjects and examinations they choose to undertake. Not all schools adopt this approach

  • Whether the school is simply selecting the pupils who are most likely to do well in exams

  • Whether the school is doing more than “teaching to the test”

  • Whether pupils are happy and thriving

  • Whether your child will do as well, better or worse than the pupils whose exam results are represented in the league tables

7. How do you enrich learning for pupils? 

It’s accepted wisdom that learning is not just about what goes on in the classroom, but well beyond. 

You will want to understand more about outdoor learning, what opportunities there are to travel both domestically and internationally, and about the breadth and range of extra-curricular opportunities, your children will find. 

Many independent schools will offer much music and sport but dig a bit deeper and you’ll get a sense of some of the less high profile activities that might be available. 

For example, at Watson’s, we have opportunities including unicycling, Model United Nations, origami, chess and even interior design. 

You may also want to ask about attitudes towards extra-curricular activities. Some schools, like Watson’s, really place a value on pupils participating in these sorts of activities, because we think it’s actually really important in terms of their overall academic, but also life, experience. 

8. Will my child be happy?

Schools have an enormous responsibility to every child in their care, regardless of age, to ensure they are happy. 

As a world, we’ve never been more aware of our mental health, and if we didn’t know before this year’s global pandemic, then we sure do now. 

Here are five quick ‘how’ questions to consider: 

  1. How do you create a positive environment for children to learn?

  2. How do you promote positive mental and physical wellbeing for pupils and staff (after all teachers and other staff are human too)?

  3. How do you support children who are struggling with their own mental health? 

  4. How do you manage situations where children fall out, or there is evidence or allegations of bullying?

  5. How are parents welcomed to the school

  6. How do you feel about what you’ve heard in all the many questions you have asked?

Our Digital Open Morning takes place on Saturday 3 October, click here to register.

We plan to follow this up by offering individual tours after that, subject to guidance from the Scottish Government. If you register to join us for our Digital Open Morning, we’ll be in touch later in the summer to offer you the opportunity to book your tour.  

The application deadline for 2021/22 is Friday 13 November.