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The 8 most important things to look for in a school

... and nope, exam results are not one of them! Here's the insider scoop on choosing the best school for your child from Winchester House School's Emma Goldsmith, Prep Head of the Year in 2018.

Choosing schools can be a total minefield, but there are a few things you can do. Firstly, check out my snoopy school reviews – seriously, they’ll really help! Secondly, read this brilliant advice from Emma Goldsmith, the head of Winchester House School in Brackley on the Bucks/Northants border.

She’s given her insider tips for the things you really need to take notice of when you’re looking round a school – and Tiger parents take note, academics aren’t one of them! Goldsmith won Prep Head of the Year in 2018 (I know, get her!) and has four kids herself too, so you’re in good hands. Over to you Emma.


The 8 most important things to look for in a school

1. The children’s school books

I see parents glimpse fleetingly through children’s school books on visits sometimes, but take your time. Yes, seeing if the children are actively engaged in the classroom is one way to judge teaching, but a brilliant quality marker is how the kids’ books are marked (and how often!). So rather than just a tick or a ‘well done’, do their comments extend the learning? And what do you think of the quality of the activities the kids are being set? It shouldn’t just be about the three Rs and this is one of the easiest ways to see in black and white what and how a school teaches children.

2. Don’t be hoodwinked by ‘outdoor learning’

It’s a real buzzword these days, and it’s easy to be seduced by outdoor learning environments, but it’s important to find out the purpose behind it. We don’t offer Forest School at Winchester House but when it’s pertinent to the creative curriculum – for example, when Year 4s are growing seeds as part of looking at ecology and learning about the Amazon rainforest – we’ll use outdoor learning to feed into their  learning rather than, ‘oh, it’s maths outside today’.

It’s also worth looking more widely at the learning environments for the children – are they always in the same classroom? Can they use other rooms flexibly? Are there breakout spaces? It’s something I really believe in. We’re currently planning a new £1.5 million space that can be used flexibly for drama, maths, whatever, where the kids will be able to write on the walls and desks. It will be a real interactive experience and just as exciting as sitting on a lawn doing your spellings!

3. Look past the academics

Not an easy suggestion for a head teacher to make as we’re very proud of our academics! But if you look at all the research on the employability skills for the future it’s about problem solving, empathy, communication – the character of your child. We’ve moved away from Saturday school and towards ‘mastery mornings’ which is completely off timetable – so for example film/animation and workshops at Chipping Norton Theatre where the children can develop creative, empathetic skills through drama. These soft skills may well be more than academic ones in the future.

We’ve also just started to do the Duke of York iDea Awards (Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award) which looks to develop entrepreneurial skills – they’re not prep-school focused but we’ve found them inspiring for our children, and like the D of E Awards the  can attain bronze, silver and gold. The end result? If the prep school is doing its job well there will be a good range of senior schools the children go on to, reflecting different interests (sport, drama, music, art, academics) and nurtured talents so it’s worth asking that question. After all, a feeder school to a single senior school suggests a one size fits all mentality and that might not be right for your child.

4. Don’t be wowed by facilities

Schools are only as good as their teaching staff. The adults your children have contact with every day will be developing their manners and character. The length of the pool or the extra astroturf won’t have quite the same impact!  Find out how long teachers stay. Do they get job satisfaction? Are they well looked after by the school? Are they stretched and stimulated? Happy teachers make for happy children.

5. Dig deep into the wellbeing provision

sad teenager boy sitting on floor jacket hidden face

Many prep schools will look after your child for 10 years including early adolescence and will be with your family through potential breakups, illness and bereavement so confidence in the school’s handling of Wellbeing is vital. What services do they offer? What is their expertise? What kind of qualifications do the staff have? Every school worth its salt will have a counselling service but what is their policy about linking to professional services? And is there support for parents too? Check the details of sex education provision; when, how, and what does that include.

Ask how they’ve handled eating disorders, bullying and gambling. Yes gambling – unfortunately Fortnite has thrown this one into the mix over the last year. Any school that says it hasn’t dealt with these is not telling you the truth and confident heads will be open about them. On a more practical level how replete is the wrap-around care? It could be an extra 3 hours a day where the school looks after your child – so how do they make it safe and special? And check the pricing! Is wrap around care included in the price, or is it one of many ‘extras’ that quietly bump up the fees?

6. The mobile phone policy

A huge one this, as we know parents are struggling to contain use at home and it’s worth seriously considering how a school’s mobile policy fits in with your own views and concerns. Some schools allow use at breaktimes, others lock them away during the school day.  Our own policy is that there’s no mobile phone at all in school. Interestingly I was thinking for a while that perhaps we should introduce it carefully to educate children how to manage it, but when we asked the children they said absolutely not – they loved the fact that they didn’t have the distraction during their day.

7. Look at the outreach

How does a privileged school keep it real? So few parents ask about outreach in the community but it’s really important – it’s this kind of thing that gives children empathy and character and an understanding of just how lucky they are. For many years I think the people of Brackley felt WHS was a Willy Wonka Factory – no one knew what happened behind the gates! We’ve worked really hard to become part of the local community, putting on everything from coffee mornings for the local care home, working on the premise that older people really benefit from being with younger children and vice versa. We also work with local primary schools – we’re planning for some of our older pupils to go and start mentoring.

8. Choose a bespoke look around

Winchester front of house gardens sunshine blue sky exterior

Winchester House School

Open days give you a feel for a school but as a parent I think it’s more useful to have a bespoke visit – there’s more chance to talk to the head and staff, and you’ll see the school on an ordinary day, where the children will be less ‘on show’ and more able to have a natural conversation with you. And if you’re looking for a quick, honest measure of the school, ask the children – they’ll always tell the truth whether the teachers want them to or not!

Winchester House School’s Open Days are on 1 March & 16 March if your interest is piqued – or start with my review! A full list of Muddy schools reviews can be found in the Muddy Best Schools Guide.


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