How to choose the best prep school in Brighton
Choosing the right Brighton prep school for your children probably ranks as one of the five most important decisions you are likely to make in your lives. It’s on a par with who you marry, how many children you have, where you live and perhaps what breed of dog you will adopt.
The right school will enable your child to develop a love of learning, to grow in confidence, to begin to develop a sense of themselves and will reinforce the values you hold dear. The right prep school should enable the most suitable pathway at the next level of your child’s education.
However, unlike other life decisions, there are very few people to help you with your selection. So it seems appropriate to offer parents a little insight to ease the process, and help you choose the best Brighton prep school for your child.
Two key questions to ask when choosing a Brighton prep school
Before booking a visit or even checking Google, school websites, Facebook pages and forums, there are two sets of key questions you need to ask.
The first set is aimed at defining the needs of your child. These questions might include:
- What are my child’s learning weaknesses in core subjects?
- Do they need extension or support in any of these?
- Do they have specific learning difficulties or strengths?
- What is their favoured learning style?
- Are they presently at expected levels?
- What are their favourite subject areas?
- What do they find most challenging about school life in general?
- What do they find most rewarding?
- Do they have any social challenges?
- What extra-curricular activities do they prefer?
- What are the important personal skills and values I want them to develop?
The second set of questions is aimed at finding evidence to prove that your child’s needs can be met by a school. These questions might include:
- What does the extension program consist of?
- How many children are able to be take part?
- How are all pupils supported if they have specific learning difficulties?
- How well versed does the school appear to be in dealing with the specific learning needs of your child?
- What provision is there for the particular subject areas that are of interest to your child?
- Is this provision available to all or a select few?
- How transparent is the school about behaviour problems?
- Does the school have social intervention programs?
- How is the pastoral system of the school structured?
Start looking at prep schools on social media
Now that you have a better idea of what you’re looking for, you can begin to hit the net. Social media won’t answer any questions directly, but it may give you an indication of the soul of the school.
It will hopefully give a sense that the prep school has an energetic following, is caring, engages the parents of the school, celebrates the small successes as well as the big ones, has active support, and is involved in the community. A school won’t engage the community unless the community believes in the school.
Look at the Brighton prep school website
The school’s website will also give you valuable insights. For a start, you should be able to get an indication of the aims and values of the school. It should also include a great deal of essential information for you, such as key policies on behaviour, anti-bullying, homework, safeguarding, e-safety.
Consider whether these policies are up to date and thorough. And ask yourself whether the website feels formal, traditional, exclusive, modern, or sincere. What feelings about the school do you get from looking around it?
You should also be able to find an outline of curriculum programs for each year group. This will help you to stay involved in your child’s learning, give you an insight into how innovative the approach to teaching is and whether it reflects a broad base of interests.
There should be a who’s who of the staff. And while you may not know any of the names, the positions listed will give you an idea of what areas the school prioritises. For example, a small school which includes a Creative Learning Coordinator is clearly trying to keep abreast of modern teaching approaches. Look at any recent newsletters, too. Are they interesting? Is there a sense that the school is active, vibrant, happy?
What if you don’t like what you find?
If, through your investigations, you uncover some dissatisfaction, don’t be too worried. Prep schools are accountable to hundreds of clients: children, parents, grandparents, carers. And it’s inevitable that a school that maintains a strong position on key issues is likely to upset someone along the way. In fact, I’d be more concerned if a school was always aiming to keep all customers happy.
So what should you look for on your first visit to a Brighton prep school?
A good Brighton prep school will arrange your visit on a day that suits you. The traditional model of open days has many plusses. You’ll see the school at its best; the ‘right’ people will be made available to speak to you, and there’ll probably be activities staged which allow you to see the greatest things that the school has to offer. Open days are often scheduled on a Saturday too, which means that you shouldn’t need to take time off work.
However, there’s no question that open days are somewhat contrived. Every aspect of an open day is designed to impress, and therefore doesn’t depict an entirely genuine portrait of how the school functions from day to day, what it feels like, how organised it is, and how respectful the children are in their interactions with each other and adults.
Why it’s better to book a visit to a prep school outside open days
It’s much preferable to book a visit to a Brighton prep school at your own convenience, rather than attend an open day. Yes, you may not get all the bells and whistles of an open day, but it will be a much truer reflection of what your child might experience on any given day, which is what you really want to know.
The ultimate school viewing is one where the school allows you to visit when you want (by arrangement), and where the tours are led by pupils. Pupils will generally give very honest answers to your questions and will also reflect the ethos of the school.
Every interaction with a Brighton prep school is an insight
Every part of your interaction with your chosen Brighton prep school is an insight. From the moment you book your visit and later, when you first arrive at the school, think about the reception you receive, as this is the first insight into the culture of the school. And how promptly and thoroughly are any enquiries dealt with?
On the day of your visit, remember that one of your goals is to identify the key indicators that it is a successful school – not just that it is suited to your child.
And of all the key indicators of success, the most important is that children are actively engaged in their learning. Whether it’s in the form of task-based conversations, active learning, silent reflection, deep concentration or fun games, ask yourself: “Are children actively taking part?”
You’ll no doubt be introduced to teachers on your tour. Don’t be afraid to ask them to explain what task their children are completing, or the lesson they are instructing. Whatever the subject, age group or teaching approach, you’re looking for a sense of commitment and enthusiasm in the teacher’s explanations.
They should also appear approachable and friendly (although bear in mind that they may be in the midst of a carefully planned speech or a vital explanation and may not always be able to break off and chat).
Remember to quiz your guides, too. Ask them about favourite subjects, systems of rewards, sanctions and opportunities. And ask them if they like learning, and why. Do they feel teachers are approachable? What are the three best things about their school (not counting friends)?
When they are struggling with any issue, how are they supported? Ask them if they feel limited in any way? Do they feel there are opportunities for their voices to be heard?
What a Brighton prep school’s displays of work can tell you
As you walk around Brighton prep schools, you may be amazed at how different each school feels. The colours, spaces, lights, and furniture etc. will obviously differ drastically. However there will be certain key things you will hope to see in every school, and one of my most important ones is displays. These speak volumes about both the approach to teaching and the approach to learning.
In a non-selective prep school you’ should see work on display which celebrates the different levels of ability of the children it teaches. These displays shouldn’t be too old, and they should reflect a continual desire to keep celebrating achievements.
The displays should also focus on many different areas of learning, and will hopefully demonstrate a teaching approach that caters to different learning styles. As a parent I would be concerned if all the displays exhibited beautifully crafted pieces of writing when my child is a very visual learner.
The work on display is also one of your only opportunities to glean the school’s approach to marking. Any sound marking policy will acknowledge what has been done well, and direct students on how they might improve.
Displays won’t always feature children’s work. Part of the function of displays is to support learning, so some displays should explain or remind children how to approach tricky areas of learning.
School displays are also great clues as to the school’s values and beliefs. A school should be proud of what it stands for and should promote it widely. And this should be evident from the moment you enter, and be reflected in many ways throughout the school, sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly.
Why playtimes are important when viewing a Brighton prep school
When you visit a Brighton prep school you are considering choosing it should feel organised, not chaotic. But be aware that there are certain times of year when organisation is present but not clearly apparent.
A key indicator of organisation is that the school is kept tidy, as this reflects an attitude of respect for the school environment and that systems have been thought through and addressed. It’s also one of many indications that the school has an effective approach to behaviour management.
If possible, try to see what playtimes look like. These will be very important times for your child, and it will help you to be able to visualise what they look like when your child later talks about any playground disagreements. Things to lookout for include:
- How well do children play?
- Are the supervising adults engaged?
- Are there toys/activities for them to play with?
- Does one game, e.g. football, dominate the space or is it shared fairly equally?
What should you expect from your meeting with the headteacher?
The final part of your visit will hopefully include some time with the headteacher. As the person who is setting the tone and direction of the school, you’ll most certainly want to meet him or her.
It’s inevitable that, at some point in your child’s education, you’ll need to consult with the headteacher, possibly about tricky topics. So you should find them approachable.
If, after your tour around the school, you’re still not sure about the direction the school is taking, please do ask the headteacher. Ask them what the future priorities for the school are, and how it intends to keep improving.
Whatever the answer, please don’t settle for ‘we want to remain the same but do it better’. This doesn’t depict a school which reflects on its practice and aims to improve. Ensure that their answers are not wrapped in jargon, but are convincing and easy to understand.
Make sure that you have a good understanding of the school’s pastoral systems and any other aspect that you feel has not yet been answered.
Also importantly, wait to see if there are questions from the headteacher about your child. As much as you would like to know what the school can offer, the school should also ensure they can cater your child’s needs.
Another consideration is about teaching heads. Opinion differs greatly on this point, but I believe that headteachers should still teach. Clearly they can’t commit to a very substantial teaching load, but there should be something that demonstrates they are still connected to the pupils of the school, the expectations of pupils and the pressures of teaching.
Visit several Brighton prep schools before making your choice
Above all, please don’t forget that your Brighton prep school visit is an opportunity for reciprocal scrutiny. So, just as you will later reflect on everything you heard and saw on your visit, the school will also consider every comment and question posed by you.
Please do make sure that you see a variety of Brighton prep schools before you choose the right school for your child. Although you may not be seriously considering some of them, there will always be something of value that other schools will offer which you may not have considered. This discovery may prompt you to ask your preferred school further important questions.
My final piece of advice is to have all your questions and points written down. There’s no doubt that my most focussed meetings with parents are with those who come prepared. This will also help you to ensure that nothing key in your list of priorities is omitted from investigation.
We invite you to visit our Brighton prep school
If you’re looking for a Brighton prep school, we’d love to welcome you to visit our school. Windlesham School is a non-selective, co-educational prep school in what we feel is the perfect location in Brighton.
We are situated directly across from Dyke Road Park, which is a wonderful facility for much of our outdoor sport provision. We are a busy school with many initiatives and programs in place, reflecting the commitment and dedication of our excellent staff and pupils. If you’d like to book a visit, please contact Mrs Jackson on firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01273 553645.
I look forward to meeting you and showing you our lovely school.