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101 Questions When Choosing a School

George Heriots
Fettes Prep
Stewarts Melville College Cricket

Independent School Open Days

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. 

An open day is a school’s way of showcasing what it does best. 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. 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 key 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.


Finally, application and waiting lists cost money. However, it does make sense to put your child down on a couple of school waiting lists.

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.

Best of luck. We hope you enjoy getting to know Edinburgh’s impressive range of independent schools.

Not all of these questions will be ones you need to ask yourself or a school but they are here to help you decide what is important to you and your family.There are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions:



  • 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 during school activities?

  • 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.



    • 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.

    In a large school are the same sporty children dominating the first teams? And only the most talented musicians making the choir/ orchestra?  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.


  • 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 environmental reasons. It’s also likely your child’s friends will live nearby. 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.

    • 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  here between younger and older pupils?


  • 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.


  • 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?

  • Food

  • Books/Stationary/iPad/Laptop

  • Exams

  • School Bus

  • After-school Activities

  • Compulsory Uniform & Sports Kit

  • Music Lessons

  • See our online feature 'What Are The Extra Costs On Top of Fees'?


    • 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?



    • 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?

    • Do the pupils sing hymns on a regular basis?

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



    • 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?

    • Which facilities can the children access at playtime?



    • What time does the school day start and end? Does the school offer wrap-around care and holidays clubs. If so, how much do they cost? How many places are available?

    • 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 sports are timetabled into the school day? 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? 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?


    • 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? Does the school offer taster classes and instrument hire?

    • 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?

    • Are shows very competitive or can all children take part regardless of ability?

    • If your child receives private music lessons outside school, can they still participate in school orchestras, bands and concerts?


    • 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?


    • 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?

    Best of luck. We hope you enjoy getting to know Edinburgh’s impressive range of independent schools.

    Download this handy checklist to take with you as a question prompt for your school visit.

    School Open Day Checklist
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