15 Questions to Ask When You Visit a School

Image shows Stowe School.

When you’re choosing a boarding school for your child, you want to know that you’re making the best decision and selecting a school that will suit their personality, bring out the best in them and give them the best possible start in life.

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When you look at their brochures, it can be hard to distinguish between one boarding school and the next. To help you decide, therefore, you’ll need to take matters into your own hands and ask the school some searching questions when you visit for the first time. This article covers some of the questions you might want to ask. You might like to copy down these questions with room to jot down their replies; make a note of the responses of each school and you’ll be able to use them as a point of comparison once you’ve been to see all the schools on your shortlist.

1. What accreditation do you have?

Image shows an Oscar.
Has the school won any awards?

All good boarding schools will be members of regulatory bodies such as The Boarding Schools Association and the Independent Schools Council, so the first question to ask is whether or not the school is a member of these. These organisations are there to provide regular monitoring of member schools, assessing every aspect of life in each school – from the quality of the teaching to the behaviour of its pupils, and even the extra-curricular activities offered. Such monitoring gives parents like you the peace of mind that the school lives up to the high standards laid down by these associations.

2. What makes you different from the rest?

It sounds like an interview question, but there’s nothing wrong with asking the school some challenging questions when you’re assessing its suitability for your child. With so many boarding schools to choose from, they can, on the face of it, all seem much the same. Getting the school to offer its thoughts on what makes them stand out from the crowd can be a good way to differentiate between them using their unique attributes.

3. What values do you instil in your pupils?

Image shows a school chapel.
Many of the UK’s most prestigious boarding schools have strong religious traditions.

You’re going to be handing over a big chunk of your child’s upbringing to the school they end up at, so you’ll want to know that they’re being taught the values you believe they should be taught. Questioning the school on its values will give you a flavour of what the culture is likely to be like, and you’ll be able to decide whether or not this is what you want your child to be taught. Religious matters are likely to be a factor in this aspect of your questioning; if there’s going to be a particular religious undercurrent at the school – for example daily chapel – and you’re of a different religion (or none), you may not be comfortable with your child participating in such activities. If you’re not comfortable with this, find out whether these activities are compulsory; if they are, you may be better off choosing a different school.

4. How big are the classes, and how do you cater for different abilities?

Class size makes a big difference to the quality of your child’s education. The smaller the class size, the more individual attention your child will receive. Bigger classes can suffer from discipline issues, and they also make it easier for your child to get out of speaking up or answering questions, because there are plenty of other children for them to hide behind. Small class sizes encourage every child to get involved in academic discussion, which will be a valuable skill for university and life beyond it. If your child is above or below the level of average academic ability, it’s also worth asking about how the school handles pupils who fall outside the average; are there mixed ability classes, or will your child only be learning with pupils who are at their own level of academic ability? How will your child’s individual needs be met?

5. What’s the school’s value added score?

Image shows a girl doing her homework.
Selective schools may have low value added scores, as students who are already achieving the maximum possible marks cannot have any value added to them.

Value added scores are a means of measuring pupils’ progress over time, and they typically compare a school’s test results between tests taken aged 11 and GCSEs. This gives each school a score, and these are measured around a score of 1,000: scores above this are above average, while those below it are below average. While this is simply a way of measuring something that isn’t very easy to measure, and it’s not going to give you a complete picture of the school’s academic results, it’s another point of comparison to help you assess how good schools are in relation to each other.

6. What proportion of your pupils are boarders?

The proportion of boarders to day school pupils may affect your child’s experience of boarding school, so it’s worth asking what proportion of the school’s pupils are boarders. This is because if they’re mostly day school pupils, with few boarders, your child may be lonely in the evenings and at weekends, and there’s likely to be less on offer in the way of after-school and weekend activities.

7. How many of your pupils go on to top universities?

Image shows Hertford College, Oxford.
How many students does the school usually send to Oxford or Cambridge?

If you’re ambitious about your child’s education, you’ll want to know how many of the school’s pupils go on to gain places at top universities, and what resources and support are available to help them achieve this goal. Schools that send a lot of pupils to Oxford and Cambridge are likely to be better connected and better equipped with the necessary knowledge to know how to support your child through their application, conducting mock interviews and such like. They’re also likely to instil a culture of aiming for these universities, with a focus on academic excellence. Not all boarding schools have this academic focus, so you’ll need to be picky if this is what you want for your child in the long term.

8. Do you have any contacts in universities and professions?

Some boarding schools are noted for their contacts, with many of their pupils going to particular universities or professions (a notable example being Eton College and Oxford and Cambridge Universities). It may seem early days to be thinking about your child’s university education and career, but the foundations should be put in place early, and it’s worth finding out whether the school will, through its connections, help pave the way for a successful future for your child.

9. What do you provide in the way of pastoral support?

The majority of boarding schools offer excellent pastoral support that allows you to relax in the knowledge that your child is being well taken care of. But to put your mind at ease, ask them to explain to you what they provide in the way of pastoral support. How many people are charged with looking after your child’s well-being outside the classroom? To whom can they turn if they have a problem, or miss home? Does the school have a counsellor? And to whom can you talk if you’re concerned about your child?

10. What rules do you have in place for boarding houses, internet use and so on? What punishment is used to discipline those who break the rules?

Find out as much as you can about the rules and regulations your child will be subject to, particularly surrounding their boarding house. Are the boarding houses mixed or single sex? What time is bedtime? Are they allowed out on their own at weekends? What are the school’s policies on mobile phones and internet access? At this point you should also ask what punishments are used to discipline pupils who break these rules, and check that you’re happy with them. The corporal punishment that was previously a feature associated with boarding schools is thankfully now a thing of the past, but you’ll still need to make sure that you’re comfortable with the punishments your child may be dealt.

11. Can I see the accommodation?

Image shows a typical student bedroom.
Some dormitories will be more luxurious than others.

You should be given a tour of the boarding school when you visit, during which you should have the opportunity to see some typical accommodation. Ask to see some different examples of rooms across more than one boarding house if you can; they may be showing you the best accommodation, which may be unrepresentative of the rest. While you’re looking round, this would be a good opportunity to ask further questions about how the accommodation is run – how many people your child will be sharing a room with, how often rooms are cleaned, and so on.

12. What provisions do you have in place for supervised homework?

When your child is constantly surrounded by their friends, as they are in a boarding school environment, they may find it harder to concentrate on homework. Ask the school what they do about supervising homework. Are children expected to get on with it on their own, or are there supervised homework sessions at set times that they must attend?

13. What extra-curricular activities do you offer?

Image shows a game of hockey being played at a school.
What sort of sporting traditions does the school have?

If your child is going to be boarding full-time, they’re going to have free time in the evenings and at weekends. They can’t work all the time, so you’ll need to know that there’s enough to keep them occupied in their downtime. Extra-curricular activities are also important for character building, as they develop non-academic skills that will be essential for your child throughout life. The range of after school activities on offer at boarding schools tends to be better than at a day school, because boarding schools take their responsibility for keeping your child occupied very seriously. Ask them to give you a timetable of activities offered, so that you can make sure there are some that your child will be interested in; if your child has a particular talent for music, for instance, you’ll want to know what music groups and lessons are available for them to take part in, whether they’ll have to audition, and so on. Also note what times of the day and week these are offered (you’ll particularly want to know that there’s enough to keep them busy at weekends, when they might be missing home).

14. Do you have any interesting traditions?

English boarding schools are noted for their weird and wonderful traditions, and this can be a major aspect of their appeal to many children. You might want to check that you’re happy with them, though; for example, you might not be comfortable with your child taking part in a violent team sport such as Eton College’s famous Wall Game.

15. What are your entrance requirements and admissions procedures?

Image shows a baby holding an adult's finger.
Some parents will have been preparing to send their child to this school for a remarkably long time.

Entry to the top boarding schools can be competitive, so you’ll need to know what you’re up against from the start if you’re to stand a reasonable chance of securing a place for your child. Find out how likely your child is to be given a place, and what they’ll need to do to get one. You’ll need to know whether your child meets, or is likely to meet, any academic entrance requirements, and find out what the admissions procedures are: interviews, entrance exams and so on. It would also be helpful to know at this stage what other aspects the school will look at when deciding whether or not to offer your child a place. Some want to see evidence of talent in a particular area, for example, and this doesn’t necessarily have to be academic. They may want your child to be proficient in music, acting or sport, for instance, because such talents contribute to the school community.
When you’ve visited a few schools and gathered answers to these questions – as well as any of your own – you should be in a much stronger position to decide which school is right for your child. Once you’ve decided – and your child agrees – it’s time to progress to the next stage. Read our guide to getting into the best boarding schools in Britain for more advice on what happens next.

Image credits: banner; Oscar; chapel; working hard; Oxford; dormitory; hockey; baby.