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Questions you should ask before choosing the right independent school for your daughter

Questions you should ask before choosing the right independent school for your daughter

We meet many families who are thinking hard about whether an independent school education is right for their daughters. In this blog, Head of Marketing and Admissions, Jeanette Ariano, talks about what questions to ask to help you decide, and also looks at the St Mary's provision.

Choosing the right independent school for your daughter is one of the most significant decisions you will make, and the current lockdown is making this even harder for families due to the national restrictions. As a parent you naturally want to give your daughter the best possible start in life, and as this pandemic has highlighted, children's schooling is an essential part of their development, security, wellbeing and, of course, happiness. 

So, if you are thinking about an independent school what areas should you look at before you make a decision? To help, we have put together several questions that should help when considering any independent school that will help you on your way.   

1. Does the school's values match yours' as a family?

We meet a lot of families who believe that all the independent schools are the same, however it is really not the case. Each school has different aims and values. You can glean a lot from each school's website, or by talking to Admissions Officers and staff, and it really is important to do your research to understand not only how your child will succeed academically, but also what environment they will be spending most of their day. Is it clearly an academic hothouse where there will be a lot of pressure potentially for your daughter to perform well at all times, or will it be more of a balanced approach? Consider what your child will be able to cope with and what is important to them as an individual. 

You may also want a school that reflects our society. For example at St Mary's, although we are selective, we have a broader intake of abilities, recognising that each individual girl has a different set of skills and her own special attributes. Which means that if you have a high achieving daughter, she will not only continue to achieve very highly, but she will also learn how to interact and socialise with others' who do not have the same level of ability - thereby learning life skills such as empathy and coaching - in an environment more realistic for when they enter the workplace. 

In addition, the school's outward approach is a useful marker to understand if their values match your own. If you strive for your child to become a well-rounded and perceptive individual, who fights against injustice and speaks out to make our world the best it can be, it may be useful to research what charitable work the school does and how students play a part in driving this agenda forward for the greater good. 

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

This sounds like a bit of a strange question, particularly for Preschool or Junior School children, however it is important to look at what system influences the curriculum. Particularly as independent schools are not obliged to follow the national curriculum. Does the education follow an approach such as the Montessori method, for example? You can see information about St Mary's curriculum at each level on the following links:

- Preschool

- Junior School

- Senior School - including KS3 and GCSE/iGCSE

- Sixth Form

3. How does the Admissions process work?

All schools handle their admissions process slightly differently. At St Mary's we pride ourselves on getting to know our families on a personal level as we feel that there isn't a 'one size fits all' approach when it comes to a family's wants and needs from the school they select for their daughter.

As a parent it is important to consider two practical areas of the process - what will be involved in the admissions process. Are there written tests, interviews or visits for example? Do they have a scholarship's programme and would this be something that would suit your daughter? 

In addition, ask how each school will support each child during the assessment process. For example if your daughter has any access requirements or additional needs. All schools should ensure a child's mental health and wellbeing are a top priority, above the results they will achieve, and it is a useful marker to see if this is at the heart of the school's process. This will give an indication as to how your daughter will be nurtured and considered beyond the assessment process. 

4. How happy will my child be at this school?

Happy children thrive. Children who feel stressed, anxious and unhappy will not only not perform to the best of their academic ability, but they will also not enjoy school life. As a school we, and all other schools, have a duty of care for each girl that comes here, regardless of their age, to ensure they are happy. 

The global pandemic has made all of us accutely aware of the importance of positive mental health. Our children have been thrown into a world that is rapidly changing - overnight even as it did when we went into lockdown 3.0. They have had exams cancelled that they have spent years studying for, they are often lonely as they have limited social interaction and some have limited access to outdoor space - just some of the issues they have faced. 

When looking at a new school ensure you consider how they will create a positive environment for your daughter, and for you as parents - your daughter's first educator. How do they manage disputes amongst peers and how do they support children who are struggling with their own mental health? Is there a feeling that they promote positive mental and physical wellbeing for all members of their community?

At St Mary's we pride ourselves, and our well-known for, our exceptional levels of pastoral care. We are part of the Girls on Board programme that helps girls to work through any conflicts, and have an unprecedented level of support in place to ensure our girls are happy and supported. Find our more about our pastoral care provision by watching this film with our Head of Pastoral Care, Ms Aodain Fleming

5. How will your daughter's learning be enriched when at the school?

As we know learning does not just take place in a classroom. In Cambridge we are lucky to have a wealth of learning opportunities on our doorstep. Children need variety to keep them engaged and when considering a school look at the opportunities there are for them - beyond the pandemic clearly! - to travel both domestically and internationally, as well as the extra-curricular opportunities. 

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 St Mary's, we have opportunities including Leith's Introductory Certificate in Food and Wine, Rowing, woodwork, Hispanic artists, physics olympiad, Sixth Form invasion games and even knitting. 

6. What support is there for my daughter if she is struggling in a particular subject or course? 

All children find some element of the curriculum or their learning a challenge at times. Right now we are finding that while some children take to remote learning like ducks to water, there are others who have needed more reassurance and support. No two children are the same. Equally it can be demotivating for a child who excels in one subject to feel that they are held back or not challenged adequately. 

With that in mind, ensure you ask of each school you are considering what happens to support your daughter when things are either not going as well as they'd like, or when they are going amazingly well and they need more.

At St Mary's through our High Performance Learning strategy we have always strived to develop both intellectual and social confidence, encouraging girls to show concern for others and to prepare for life's challenges. For us, success is not limited to exam results, it is about achieving academic excellence alongside a much wider set of values and attitudes that sit at the heart of our ethos as a Mary Ward School.

Find out more about High Performance Learning at our Senior School from our Director of Teaching and Learning, Ms Kate Latham:

7. What is the lockdown learning provision?

A question we never thought we would have to ask?! Education has been severely affected during the course of this pandemic. Schools have had to switch - sometimes with less that 24-hour notice - to remote learning, and every school has a different provision. It is important to ask what provision there will be should your daughter be required to self-isolate or should there be further national lockdowns. This pandemic has shown us all we just don't know what is around the corner in life. 

At St Mary's we have, since the first national lockdown in March, had a full remote learning provision for all our pupils. This included all subjects - including specialist subjects at our Junior School such as Computer Science and Mandarin. A booklet of the provision is available detailing our remote learning strategy. We were delighted to be voted 'top of the class' by our parents in an independent survey carried out specifically to ask their views. 

Despite being physically back open for the autumn term, our remote learning and continual improvement of our offering continued, as our dedicated and exceptional teaching staff taught those students isolating, or those based abroad who could not return home, in a hybrid learning model. These pupils have all been supported pastorally as well as academically throughout the lockdown as we are aware of the impact on their mental health this pandemic will be having.

8. What is the (actual) cost?

This seems like a very obvious question however all schools do their fees slightly differently. Naturally you will find there is a variance between schools for the cost per term, per child, however there are other areas you should consider. 

There will be addiitonal costs such as fees and trips, or lessons delivered by external teachers - such as peripatetic teaching staff who deliver LAMDA and music lessons.

Scholarships also offer some payment towards the first year of fees and, for those who are eligible, most schools have some bursary provision.  

We do hope this blog helps you to consider some of the main questions you may have in the admissions process. If you would like to apply to St Mary's, or have any questions about our provision and our unique and nurturing school, then do not hesitate to get in touch with our Admissions team who are still working remotely throughout the lockdown. 

Mrs Jeanette Ariano

Head of Marketing and Admissions