Moving to Senior School
How much freedom of choice should you give your child in the process of moving to senior school? Dr Helen Wright, Headmistress of St Mary's School, Calne, offers some advice for parents.
When your child started at nursery or prep school, life was straightforward. You played the part of the parent, you knew best what suited your child, and - at least for most of the time - he or she probably went along with whatever you said without much question. This was as true for decisions about what type of sandwiches to put in the daily packed lunch box as it was for which extra-curricular clubs and activities he or she should do... and it will almost certainly not have crossed your mind for an instant that you might consult your child on which school he or she should be attending - this simply wasn't necessary. Even allowing for the inevitable rose-tinted glow that descends over time, those were halcyon days when decision-making was simple.
Wind on a few years, however, and the landscape is far from being as clearly defined. Cheese fillings may be emphatically off the lunch list, your child may be refusing to join the choir - even though you know he or she would learn from it and enjoy the experience ... and while you may think you have found the perfect senior school, your child may completely disagree with you. Who should be calling the shots? As your child ends his or her prep school years and moves to the next step of his or her education, the big question is this: how much choice should you be giving to your child in choosing his or her senior school?
Fundamentally, of course, you are still your child's parent, and it is your absolute responsibility to make sure that your child is safe, well and properly looked-after. You would be failing in your duty if you allowed your child to do anything which placed him or her in danger - and as the judgement call will fall to you, it is up to you to draw that line in the sand with your child. The buck stops with you, after all - it is you who would be held accountable (in law, as much as anything) if you failed in this duty of care. Most decisions affecting pre-teenagers or teenagers - including that of choice of school - are usually concerned with much less dramatic issues than those risking life and limb, though. Given that being a parent also means developing in our children the ability to think for themselves and to be able, eventually, to make entirely independent, well-thought out, well-balanced decisions, should we be starting with their choice of senior school?
Before rushing into handing over decision-making powers about schools to your child, however, pause and think through where exactly you stand on the issue of involving your child. Imagine a continuum with total parental control over decision-making at one end, and, at the other end, decision-making that has been totally devolved to your child. In broad terms, you can associate one end with the period of time when your child was a baby, and the other end with their transition to adulthood, but this does not mean that what happens in the middle is similarly neatly organised, or indeed that there is a linear movement from one end to the other. Psychologically, children go through very many different phases during their lifetime, often re-visiting the neediness of their very early years. Do not assume that your child is better-placed now to make a balanced judgement than he or she was last year - the very opposite may be true, particularly given the unpredictability that hormones throw into the mix.
Where you place yourself on the decision-making continuum will depend on how self-aware and reflective your child is, at the time you are making the decision, together with other considerations - what kind of parent you are, for instance, and the specific circumstances of the decision you are about to take. Broadly speaking, the more far-reaching the decision will be, the more likely you are to want to retain ultimate control over it. The decision you reach on the choice of senior school will affect your child's experiences and friendships for years to come, and will help mould his or her adulthood. It is one of life's major decisions: you are right to want to have the final say. And yet ... you want your child to be involved, and certainly to be happy with the decision. How can you ensure that this is the case?
Faced with dilemmas such as this, there is no substitute for self-reflection and a really careful understanding of why you are personally drawn to a certain school or schools. Beware above all the trap into which we all, as parents, fall at some point in our lives, namely that of seeking to live out our own lives again through our children, either to replicate what we had or to improve upon it. Our children have their own separate identities, and although we may recognise some of ourselves in them, they are unique and have their own very individual needs. It may sound obvious, but the most crucial element to take into consideration in deciding how much you involve your child is whether this - and the final outcome - will be absolutely in their own interests, rather than ours. Of course, we should not be too hard on ourselves as parents - life involves compromises, and we are not looking for the perfect solution for our child, merely the best fit. All sorts of practicalities will come into play, from distance to finance, and you will need to work these into the equation, as only you can decide upon these aspects of the choice of school. However, given that as parents you will probably want to tread a sensible line between offering your child some say in the decision-making while guiding him or her towards an outcome that suits all of you, then how do you make this work in practice, in order to avoid the potential disaster of you and your child finding yourselves poles apart?
It can be useful to have a range of tools available at your disposal to help you involve your child in the decision-making process. First and foremost, preparation is key. Do the preliminary fact-finding yourself, including making the first visits to schools yourself. Don't put yourself in the position where you take your child to see a school which you immediately decide is completely off the agenda.
Make sure you set boundaries - explain to your child why you are only looking at a number of schools, and what the exact reasons are for your choices to date. Discuss the logistical restrictions so that they know why other schools might not work at all.
Be prepared to listen and discuss. Keep the dialogue open, so that your child can see why you think certain schools are good, and you can in return appreciate what he or she is thinking. You want to ensure that you are not surprised at any stage in the process because you have not understood what he or she really feels. Try your very hardest to create an environment that allows your child to say what he or she really thinks and feels, rather than just what he/she thinks you want to hear.
What do you do, though, if after this lengthy process, you are still not in agreement? Even if you have carefully and considerately involved your child in every possible aspect of the decision-making process, not compromising on what you think of as important, but genuinely listening to your child, things can still go pear-shaped, and you could still find yourself in the position of being at loggerheads with your child. Perhaps you are committed to boarding, but your child wants to stay at home with you; or perhaps you are convinced by single-sex, but your child wants to follow his or her friends to co-ed. What do you do then?
The answer, of course, is to weigh it all up again, and to talk it through carefully, at length and in depth, with your child. Try to understand what the real reasons are - perhaps your child needs to understand what boarding really entails, or perhaps he or she is wary of the unknown, and sees sticking with friends as a strategy to help cope with this.
If it comes down to the wire, and you are absolutely convinced that one school is right, while your child thinks otherwise, then consider negotiating a trial period. As with more minor decisions (as when your child refused to join the school choir, perhaps), a trial period can prove a time when you can all see if this does in fact work after all. This is a gamble, but could very well pay off, as your child understands that you were right in your judgement after all. (It must be said that this is more likely to work between you and your child; senior schools might be less keen on the idea, but you should flag it up with them if you are concerned about the possibility of having to pay fees in lieu of notice.) There is scope here too for judicious use of a rewards system. After all, the issue may lie not with this school in particular, but with school in general, and you will certainly want to find ways to encourage your child to make the most of the opportunity afforded by school.
Whatever the decision you make under these circumstances - and you will have to be true to yourself in doing so - then be prepared for it to take time for your child to settle when term starts. While your default position should always be that once a decision has been made, then everyone should stick to it, if things do not go to plan and your child is visibly unhappy, then do ask yourself the question - again - of whether you are genuinely doing what is in your child's best interests. This is one of the hardest calls to make - we all want our children to be happy, while recognising that ultimate happiness and contentment do not depend on ensuring that every moment of life at home or school is full of fun and excitement (in fact, there is a strong argument to suggest that bouts of boredom and sadness are helpful to children in their development). This may test your tolerance levels, not to mention your emotional resilience, but don't panic - keep talking to the school and keep evaluating what is right for your child. This goes as much for your child's prep school as it does your chosen senior school. Your child's prep school knows him/her extremely well, and can help guide you in judging what the real reasons are for his/her reluctance, and to what extent you should take them into account. If you make the decision eventually to change and to go with another choice of senior school, then do so without regrets.
Senior school - coinciding as it does with those challenging yet vulnerable teenage years - will bring many more such parenting challenges. Prepare for them and embrace them, and don't be afraid to share them with your child's school. Together we will negotiate the journey to adulthood - good luck!