Asking the Right Questions
Choosing the right girls' senior school poses a myriad of questions for prospective parents. Clarissa Farr, High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School, outlines the key areas where parents should focus their attention.
"See with what simplicity
This nymph begins her golden days!
In the green grass she loves to lie,
And there with her fair aspect tames
The wilder flowers, and gives them names:"
What is more wonderful and bewitching than a daughter? Since Marvell painted the picture of Little T.C. in a Prospect of Flowers, we have allowed these creatures to ride rough-shod over our better judgement, seduce us into satisfying their every whim and generally wrap us round their little fingers.
Fathers, you may wish to stop reading here. For if you have a daughter aged somewhere between eight and eleven, you are about to embark on yet another decision over which your own particular nymph will undoubtedly have firm views. If you are feeling strong however, avert your eyes from her 'conquering gaze' for a moment and read on.
Children generally (not just daughters) play a much greater role in family decisions - especially ones affecting them personally - than they did a generation ago. Nowhere is this more obvious (and I speak both as a Headmistress and as a parent) than in the question of choosing a senior school. As parents, then you must first contend with the views of your daughter. These are likely to revolve around a number of important questions from facilities to food and looming large will be the intentions of her friends.
Naturally, you are modern and consultative and will want to take your daughters' views into account. But you may not feel it best that her wishes drive the whole process. This is, after all, a long term decision. A sensible route is to conduct some preliminary visits on your own and when you have found three or four schools you like, and could imagine your daughter liking too, bring her into the process. What you really need at a time like this is someone who knows the senior schools and also knows your daughter. The fairy godmother (or father) in question is her current Headteacher. Listen hard to the advice they give you even if it is not what you want to hear. If they fail to name the school that all the cleverest children seem to be going to, this is not because they dislike you but because they know your daughter would not flourish there. Ignore their advice at your peril - your child is about to undertake a demanding set of entrance tests, probably at several schools, and it is important that this part of the experience is interesting, mind-broadening and not demoralising for her.
So... armed with your daughter and a shortlist of realistic options, you are ready to embark on a circuit of open days and visits. Schools manage these occasions in a great variety of different ways, partly at least driven by whether they see themselves as "recruiting" (i.e. eager to attract you) or "selecting" (confident that they already have). As a parent you should look for signs that the school is listening and responsive, rather than aloof and complacent. Open Days say a great deal about school culture: who takes you round? Do you meet students?
Are they happy? Is the site well cared for? Are the staff enthusiastic? Are they interested in your daughter? Try to imagine dealing with this school, these people, not on a sunny open morning when everyone is on their best behaviour, but in the face of a more difficult situation. Your daughter will spend her teenage years here and there is bound to be conflict at some point - do the staff have the capacity to listen? Do they work with parents or ignore them?
In the end, the old cliche rings more than a little true: choosing a school is like buying a house - somehow you walk in and you just know. But that doesn't mean you should leave everything to instinct.
In my experience of interviewing prospective parents as a Headmistress, most people focus too much on what is right for their daughter now and do not think far enough ahead. If you are considering transfer at age eleven, you will be planning this move when your daughter is still only nine or ten. You need to keep in mind that the school you choose not only needs to be geared to the care and nurture of eleven year olds, it must also have scope to cater pastorally and academically for teenagers and to provide scope for the flowering of the intellectual and cultural interests that your daughter does not yet know she has.
Pastoral care - the way the school looks after the pupils as people - is key to everything and you should make sure you place your daughter in really experienced hands. Look for the acknowledgement that girls have very particular needs. From the age of twelve to fourteen, for example, friendships and their making and breaking are often absolutely central to girls' lives. The dynamics of this are subtle and often go on entirely underneath adult radar. Girls can bully one another using only their eyebrows - this is sophisticated stuff. Be sure the school you choose really understands female adolescent behaviour and doesn't just sweep it under the carpet and recommend more fresh air. Your adolescent daughter will need to be listened to and you yourself may even find you need help and guidance from the school as you grow through these years together.
Academically, your daughter is probably yet to find the subjects that will fire her and lead her intellectual development into adulthood, so be sure that the school you choose is strong in all areas and if a mixed school, that there is no 'gender bias' in the way students opt at A Level. Ask about the gender breakdown in the Sixth Form Maths and Physics classes. This may all seem entirely irrelevant to you now, either because your daughter made up her mind to be a vet when she was five or because it all just seems too far off, but the senior school will shape her interests and you want her to be as free to grow and develop - in whatever direction - as possible. Many a five year old vet is an airline pilot or dancer by the time she is fifteen.
Looking ahead is what girls do: they also need to look up. Another big question for you is about role models - not just whom your daughter will like, but whom will she want to be like as she grows up. Young women today have the highest expectations: they want to lead interesting professional lives as well as be fulfilled personally - and they assume that they can. What does the school you are choosing think and say about women's lives? Look at the senior girls - they will vary enormously of course - but do they seem to have the independence, the confidence, the sensitivity and interest in others you would want your daughter to develop? Look too, at the staff. Is it clear that women hold positions of real seniority and responsibility? Can you see patterns of leadership to which you would want your daughter to aspire? The school will become her world, and many lessons, whether consciously taught or not, will be learned in this way.
What doesn't - or shouldn't - matter? Much has been written about the 'arms race' of facilities development in independent schools. Everyone now has to have a state of the art sports centre, performing arts facility, information retrieval centre (a library when you were at school) and so forth. Are these things important? Certainly, if you are paying high fees you will expect the school to be well resourced and to show a confident commitment to its own continuing development. But this will not make the difference between a deliriously happy child and a mildly bored or even unhappy one. The Head will be bursting with pride to show you his or her latest acquisition, but keep a cool head. And keep an even cooler one if you are just shown the plans. Before you can say 'gift aid' she will be inviting you to make a significant and lasting financial contribution. If possible, you should also avoid the temptation of allowing convenience to drive your decision. With two children at different schools myself, I know how complicated the diary can become - and that's before you put in your own commitments. But you really should think about what is right for this one remarkable daughter, and try to keep out of your mind what happens to work for her brothers and sisters.
Underlying this whole decision may be one (or both) of two other key questions: whether or not to board and whether to choose a mixed or single sex school. Both invite whole articles in themselves and with regard to the former question, having been Head of a boarding school for 10 years while now leading a day school, I can only say that this needs to be a decision for the whole family. As to the latter question, the needs of every girl are different but it will be clear from what I have said that the long experience that girls' schools have in dealing with the particular issues that affect their students in adolescence should be rejected with care. Many former boys' schools now take girls and therefore claim to be co-educational. However, it can take a very long time before the school culture genuinely understands and embraces the needs of both sexes equally.
Enter Marvell's nymph: your daughter. You have visited and consulted widely, made your list of pros and cons, compared notes with everyone, held a family council and collapsed exhausted on the sofa. Now, look at her steadily and let her choose. She will almost certainly be right.