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Starting senior school: the eight pieces of advice you need to know

Planning your child’s education can feel a bit like the Grand National. You and your toddler line up at the starting gate, facing a series of daunting fences – picking the right nursery, getting into the right prep school – and then, at 11 or 13, there’s the giant Becher’s Brook: choosing the right senior school. At every stage of the race, you have to tune out the noise and confusion, dodge the loose horses and stay in the saddle. Easier said than done.

We’ve quizzed some of the top heads and education experts in the country for their advice on finding the right senior school and getting your child safely and happily onto the next stage of their education, with the finishing line in sight.  

Drawing up your shortlist 

1. Listen to your prep-school head

If you’re just starting out on your school search, your child’s prep-school head should always be your first port of call to help you draw up a sensible shortlist. ‘Good prep-school heads know their children and know their senior schools,’ says Catriona Sutherland-Hawes, director of admissions at Wycombe Abbey. Alastair Speers, headmaster of Sandroyd School in Wiltshire, agrees: ‘The relationship between prep-school head and senior school is critical. It not only allows us to understand the nuances of each school’s admissions process, but also allows us to be confident in recommending the correct schools for pupils.’ 

2. Do your research – and make your choice based on trust, not grandeur or grapevine chat

There’s a right school for every child – and that’s not necessarily the one with the most illustrious name, the grandest buildings or the flashiest marketing. ‘Choose a school based on trust,’ says Mr Speers. ‘Don’t choose one based on reputation, your child’s friendship groups, logistics or a “visionary” head alone.’ 

Be discerning and dig deep into less tangible aspects of the school. Is there a strong community? Does pastoral care go above and beyond? What are the other parents like? For George Budd, head of Moreton Hall School in Shropshire, only one question counts: ‘Do you see your child being happy there? Of course results, reputation and facilities matter – but the ethos underpins all of them. Happy, confident and fulfilled pupils are successful pupils.’

3. Don’t involve your child in the process too early

Visit each school on your shortlist without your child, initially – once they’ve been wowed by the cricket centre or the 3D printer or the chocolate cake, you might struggle to persuade them to go elsewhere. ‘Don’t take your child to your first visits if you can help it. Wait until you have a couple of schools on your list that you think are perfect – then take your child to visit them and give them the choice,’ says Chris Hattam, head of The Elms in Worcestershire. 

4. It’s OK to be ambitious – but have a realistic back-up plan

‘My best advice is to have a firm favourite which is a realistic choice, a second choice your child would be happy to go to and a back-up in case things go wrong on the day,’ says Mrs Sutherland-Hawes.For Anita Griggs, principal of London’s Falkner House, it’s all about ‘rational expectations’: ‘Always leave open the possibility of change – but never use the term “back-up” in front of your child.’ It’s important that you don’t involve your child with the perceived hierarchy of schools – they shouldn’t feel as though they’ve “failed” by not getting into your top choice.

Entrance assessments and interviews

5. Confidence is key 

‘A huge amount of exam preparation is psychological – how you get a child feeling confident going into an exam,’ says Mrs Griggs. ‘Have faith in your child. They are far more resilient than you think.’  

The same applies when it comes to interviews. ‘It’s about making them aware of what to expect, and boosting their confidence so that they can run their best race,’ says Fergus Llewellyn, headmaster of Cumnor House Sussex. Interview practice is all about ‘equipping children with the confidence to think for themselves, reflect and learn from mistakes’, adds Mr Speers. 

‘I think it’s good for children to come along thinking there are no right or wrong answers – we’re looking for how they respond rather than what they respond with. I’d be ready to be challenged,  to be asked to think about things differently and develop your answer a bit further,’ says Mrs Sutherland-Hawes.

Making the move to senior school

6. Take small steps at home to make things as easy as possible for your child

Once your child’s offer is in hand, it’s time to help them get ready and excited for the new experience ahead of them. ‘Take time to make sure you’ve got the little things right, so your children needn’t worry about having the right lacrosse socks on their first day,’ says Mrs Griggs. Some children may need help with their organisational skills or an independence boost ahead of the transition – for example, if they’re travelling to school by public transport for the first time, encourage them to try out their new journey – and role-play different situations with them.  

7. Let your child make the most of their last term at prep school

‘Let them finish well, especially this year,’ says Mr Llewellyn. Most schools do a brilliant job at pulling out all the stops for their leavers, whether it’s staging a bumper school play, hosting the school bazaar or packing them off on an action-packed residential trip. 

8. And finally… first-day nerves are normal!

‘Children should be prepared to feel totally overwhelmed, hugely excited, nervous, proud and relieved that the day has finally arrived,’ says Mrs Sutherland-Hawes. ‘What they need to remember is that everyone is in the same boat – and the staff are just as nervous and excited as the pupils! For boarding pupils, there is the additional element of being away from home. However, they have chosen it – and will be looking forward to the additional freedom, time and space that comes with boarding.’

Good luck – and remember, if you need bespoke advice, an impartial sounding board or a shoulder to cry on, Talk Education’s advisory team is on hand to help.