Finding the right school for your child

Now that parents can attend in-person school tours and open days, we look at what to consider when choosing the ‘right’ school for your child.


With so much on offer at each independent school, it can be hard to know which school is the best fit for your child. Most families attend an open day, or book a visit to tour the school and chat with the head before making their final decision. We have created this handy checklist of questions to help you consider which aspects of school life are important to your child and family.


There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. You should get the opportunity to ask questions at an open day, over the phone, or during a scheduled school visit.


An open day is a school’s way of showcasing what it does best. You’ll meet current pupils and see examples of their academic and extracurricular achievements. Despite the ‘staged’ nature of the event, you’ll still be able to learn a lot. Quizzing the pupils who tour you around with the right questions can be very revealing. Similarly, speaking to heads of departments helps you gauge the passion and vision they have for their subject. Are the pupils demonstrating activities themselves or are the teachers taking the limelight? Even during a staged day, you will get a feel for the school. This should help you narrow down your choices. If necessary, you could then visit again on a normal school day.


If possible, I would urge you to arrive punctually and in time for the head teacher's address. Its tone and message will give you a good sense of the school's direction and ethos.


Once you have all the information you need, trust your instincts. If the school ‘feels’ right, it's very likely to be right for your child.


 

Co-education or Single Sex?

  • If co-educational, what is the male:female ratio? Is the school co-educational in all year groups?

  • If there is a smaller gender group, how is it integrated into the activities of the school?

  • If it’s a single-sex school, does it have links with other single-sex schools of the opposite gender?

  • In the school’s view, what are the main advantages of the type of education it provides?

In Edinburgh, Merchiston is the only single-sex school for boys from 7 years old. St. George’s is the only single-sex school for girls from 8 years old. ESMS has a co-ed nursery and junior school. Pupils then separate through the senior years and meet again in the Sixth Form..


 

Size?

  • What is the overall size of the school?

  • How many classes are there for each year group and how many pupils per class?

  • Are all year groups on the same campus?

  • How integrated are the year groups? eg. during breaks, assembly or activities?

There are pros and cons to large and small schools. For example, large schools can be highly competitive and foster centres of excellence. Whereas a small school could be much more inclusive.

Are the same sporty children dominating the first teams? Or only the most talented musicians making the choir/orchestra? If your child is not one of them, will this affect their confidence?


Large school are, however, likely to have enough children interested in a niche activity to put on a club and take part in local or national competitions.


School class sizes range from 1 class per year group to 12 classes per senior year group. Class sizes range from 12 - 27 pupils per class. Small class sizes have obvious advantages. However, large year groups may be streamed for tailored learning. Exam years offer more subject choices and smaller classes. Less popular subjects may even involve one-to-one teaching.


There are advantages to a small school pupil roll. A small school can hold whole school assemblies, mixed year group trips abroad or division/house activities. The mixing of year groups can inspire pupils to see the talents of younger or older pupils whilst creating a sense of community for all pupils. This is not always feasible in a large school.


 

Location?

  • Is the school within walking distance of your home?

  • Does the school offer a school bus service or a walking bus, and do you need to pay for this service?

  • Is the school on a convenient public transport route?

  • Is there a procedure for drop-off and pick-up times and does this fit into your schedule?

Don’t underestimate the advantages of choosing a school within walking distance of your home. Not only for practical and ecological reasons. It’s also likely your child’s friends will live nearby.


Cycling routes to school are not always practical if your child needs to transport heavy rucksacks, sports equipment and/or a large musical instrument. If your preferred school is not within walking distance, it may, however, run a school coach service, which is ideal for younger children. In this case, there may be a pick-up point close to your home. Ask about the cost from different pick-up points. It could be worth driving to a stop closer to the school.


Once your child is old enough to take public transport, the FREE local bus service could be helpful.

Or else, consider if the train could be an option. Parents who need to drop off a child en route to work should ask about breakfast and after-school club hours.

 

Ethos & Staff?

  • What is the school’s anti-bullying policy?

  • Does the school have a published disciplinary code and will it suit your child’s temperament and your own principles?

  • Is there a published set of school rules that you can have?

  • What are the qualifications and experience of teachers and what is staff turnover like?

  • How does the school reward and encourage effort and achievement?

  • How does the school motivate pupils?

  • Does the school have prefects and how does the prefect system operate?

  • Does the school operate a house system and what role does it play in school life?

  • Is there a mentoring system and how much interaction is there between younger and older pupils?

I would urge you to arrive at the start of an open day and in good time for the head's address. The head teacher's message and tone will give you a good sense of the school's direction and ethos. This is also a valuable opportunity to meet other teaching staff and the heads of departments. Do speak to them as this can be very revealing.

As most open days or private tours involve being shown around the school by current pupils, this gives you a perfect opportunity to get some ‘straight’ answers to questions you might have. Bear in mind, however, that you would expect pupils to display a certain amount of loyalty to the school in their answers. This is a chance to get answers to questions that may be very specific to you, eg. on healthy eating, break-time activities, how strict (or otherwise) the school is, school trips, etc.


 

Education?

  • Does the school follow the Scottish, English or a wider curriculum and which public examinations are taken for which subjects?

  • Are there any timetable restraints which restrict certain subjects being taken together?

  • How integrated is the use of IT/iPads in learning?

  • If your child has particular interests or you want them to learn a specific subject, is the school strong in this area? (Ask to meet the head of department as this will give you a good sense of the passion s/he has for the subject.)

  • For which age groups are languages offered and which languages are available? (Remember to ask about Latin as well as modern languages.)

  • How much homework is given at each age and stage?

  • Does the school group pupils in sets, streams or mixed ability groups and for which subjects and year groups?

  • Which universities and courses have been the most popular for leavers in recent years?

  • Do class sizes change for particular subjects and/or year groups?

  • What are recent exam results like? Are there subjects in which the school excels?

  • If your child is particularly bright, or has additional learning needs, how many support for learning teachers are there? How many pupils access support for learning?

  • How does the school support pupils applying to Oxbridge/ Ivy League or International universities? Do they provide support for entrance exams such as STEP mathematics?

You may prefer a school that doesn’t use iPads or one that does; a school that doesn’t give homework or one that does; one that streams class subjects or one that doesn’t. There are no right or wrong answers. They simply help you find a school that aligns with your values.


Exam choices are certainly something to consider if you are looking at senior school entry. Ask the school if they have any timetable restraints which would restrict any subjects being an option. For example, it might not be possible to take German and Spanish together.

 

Costs?

  • Does the school offer bursaries and/or scholarships. Who is eligible and what percentage of assistance is available?

  • Does the school offer reduced fees for siblings, former pupils or certain occupations?

  • What additional costs (on top of fees) should I expect?

  1. Termly Fees

  2. Food

  3. Books/Stationary/iPad/Laptop

  4. Exams

  5. School Bus

  6. After-school Activities

  7. Compulsory Uniform & Sports Kit

  8. Music Lessons


See our full feature What Are The Extra Costs On Top of Fees?


 

Food?

  • Is lunch provided for all year groups and is there an additional cost?

  • What sort of meals are provided and are they hot or cold? Is there a swipe card system? Can parents see what their child has chosen to eat?

  • Is the food freshly prepared on site and are the menus changed regularly?

  • Does the school offer a breakfast or evening meal service?

  • Is there provision for special dietary requirements?

  • What is the mealtime experience like? Do teachers eat with the children? Do all year groups eat together?

  • Are children allowed off the campus at lunch time, if so which year groups?

At some Edinburgh independent schools, all children must have a school lunch and they are not allowed off the campus at lunch time (expect in Sixth Form). Other schools allow packed lunch, or the option of children purchasing lunch off the school campus. Some schools provide a canteen. You are either billed a set price per meal, or for individual items chosen by your child.


 

Religion?

  • Does the school accept pupils of any faith?

  • Does the school hold a daily assembly and, if so, is religion brought into the theme?

  • Do all year groups attend assemblies?

  • What role does religion play in the school’s curriculum and how is it taught?

  • Do the pupils sing hymns on a regular basis?

Even the schools that are considered non-denominational will sing hymns and deliver a religious service at varying times throughout the year. So if you have any strong beliefs, you will need to ask the school what role religion plays in school life.

 

Facilities?

  • Which year groups have access to these facilities? How do pupils access off-site facilities?

  • What has been the largest investment in the school’s facilities recently and does the school plan to invest further?

Independent schools are renowned for their excellent facilities. But do remember to ask what conditions are in place for use of the facilities. For example, can children access the tennis courts at playtime? Boarding schools often have longer playtimes and more flexibility. Thus they can provide access to facilities which are off-limits at day schools.

 

After school & Extra Curricular Activities?

  • Are after-school activities included in the fees, are any of them compulsory and are there a variety of activities available for all year groups?

  • Do any activities have waiting lists and can children of all abilities can join in?

  • Does the school have a CCF unit or participate in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme?

  • What time does the school day start and end? Does the school offer wrap-around care and holiday clubs, how much do these cost and how many places are available?

Most schools include teacher led after-school activities in the fees (unless the activity has overheads). Ask about waiting lists and whether or not children of all abilities can join in.

 

Sports?

  • What sports are offered within the curriculum?

  • How many hours of sport are there on the weekly timetable?

  • Does the school participate in competitive matches against other schools and in which sports?

  • How do pupils get selected to be in a team?

  • What sports facilities does the school have access to, are they on the same campus as the main school building, and if not, how do pupils access these facilities?

  • What happens to games lessons when the weather is too bad to go outside. Do pupils stay in the classroom with a video or are there indoor facilities or activities?

Most day schools only have a few hours of games lessons timetabled each week. So if you would like your child to be active, you will need to explore which sports are offered as an after-school activity. If you would like your child to make the mainstream sports teams and participate in Saturday morning matches, they may have more chance of making the first and second teams at a smaller school. However, a large school may be able to offer more non-mainstream options. If your child excels at a particular sport, a large school is likely to have a winning A team. This is different at boarding schools where they offer a lot more hours and specialist sports coaching.


Do also ask what happens to games lessons when the weather is too bad to go outside. Do pupils stay in the classroom with a video or are there indoor facilities or activities?

 

Music and Drama?

  • Is drama on the timetable and can you take external drama exams eg. LAMDA?

  • If private music tuition is offered, for which instruments and which age groups is it available?

  • Are children taken out of lessons to attend private music lessons?

  • What opportunities do pupils have to perform to an audience, either individually or in groups?

  • Does the school take part in any external music or drama competitions?

Most schools will have a choir and orchestra. Most will also stage regular drama and music productions. But are all children auditioned every year? Are shows very competitive or can all children take part regardless of ability? Having private music lessons during the school day will mean your child misses out on lesson time (as lunch and playtime slots are limited). So it might be worth considering private tuition outside school. Would your child still be able to participate in school orchestras, bands or lunch time concerts?


 

Boarding?

  • Does the school offer full, weekly and/or flexible boarding?

  • Is it possible for your child to attend taster boarding days?

  • Do the routines, house system and timetables of day and boarding pupils differ?

  • What is the boarding:day pupil ratio?

  • What age does the school take boarders from?

  • How many other boarders will there be in your child’s year?

  • Make sure you visit the dormitories and common areas. Are these facilities modern and comfortable and are children able to personalise their space?


Most schools that offer boarding are keen to convert day pupils to full boarders. If your child is a day pupil at a boarding school, ask if this changes the house system and other aspects of school life. Modern boarding schools offer so much these days, it can be hard for children and parents to resist.

 

Entry Procedures?

  • Is there an entrance exam and what does it involve?

  • What date is the next assessment day?

  • Does the school operate a waiting list and is it first come, first served? Or based on academic merit?

  • How much does it cost to register your child?

  • Do junior school pupils gain automatic entry into the senior school?

  • Does the school require reports and sample work from a previous school?

Finally, application and waiting lists cost money. However, it does make sense to put your child down on a couple of school waiting lists. Especially if they will need to pass an entrance exam to gain a place. Nursery, P1 and S1 years are key entry points. Most schools will only have spaces available in other year groups if families have moved schools or out of Edinburgh. Nearly all schools automatically offer all nursery pupils a place in Primary 1. So getting your child in early is alway the best option.


Best of luck. We hope you enjoy getting to know Edinburgh’s amazing and varied independent schools.