As a freelance school marketing consultant, one of the commonest and justifiably stated concerns I read on the British Mums Dubai Facebook group or hear direct when talking to parents, is about choosing a school for their child(ren). The choice of schooling can be overwhelming in your home country…. imagine relocating to a new country! And it doesn’t stop at Primary school either.

At the end of the day, all parents want the best they can provide for their families and education is no doubt top of the list, along with a good home. Parents are confronted with lots of information about school league tables, exam results and assessments, inspection reports and all that data analysis. The wealth of information is useful but also leads to parents seeking comparison views from other parents. It is vitally important to look at a school’s results and identify the ‘Value Added’ – how well children progress in a school.

There are many studies about testing, results, and different types of curricula, selective or inclusive schools, co-educational or single sex schools. However, there is one common denominator, and that is relationships. How your child builds relationships with classmates and teachers is a key developmental guage. Growing up means that children will have numerous relationships to develop and manage and this builds confidence, resilience and security. The issue is even greater in the transient lifestyle of expatriate families. If you then view schooling as being just about achieving the best exam results and grades, you lose sight of the need for stability in order to focus on learning.

In my role I have met a lot of parents and we talk about visiting the prospective school(s) in order to make your final decision – try and ensure your visit is when the school is open to get the best out of the exercise. Whilst it is great to get recommendations, this is your child and your child’s needs that are being considered – and not all children are the same.

The first place to start your school tour is usually the school’s website and the Prospectus (if there is one). Guidelines for school websites mean that it’s not only a marketing tool but it is also a valuable source of information. However, how the information is presented is fundamental to your first impressions.

Here are my top tips about planning your school tour visit and I wish you all the best with your search: –

Meet the Senior Leadership Team

Ask to meet the Headteacher or if that’s not possible, an alternative member of the senior leadership team. Speaking with them will give you the answers you seek about their vision for the school as well as gathering a sense of the school’s ethos, how they manage the school and a chance to observe how they interact with the children and staff. If the Head knows a child by name and interacts well enough to demonstrate an understanding of children’s needs. This can quickly give a prospective parent a good sense of how the school is run and illustrates priorities.

The Data

How a school presents its data, results or league position is important in understanding how the school performs. However, the key thing amongst all the figures and graphs is to look beyond comparisons, as prospective parents need to understand the underlying information about a school to be able to see how much children progress from their starting point on joining the school.

The writing really is on the wall(s)

Literally! One of my first observations working in schools is often the wall displays – both in and out of the classroom. Inside the class is the responsibility of the teacher and reflects their understand and creativity to inspire their learners. Outside, in the public areas, illustrates what happens in this area of the school – be it academic or pastoral. Look at the wall displays in the school, because these will give a good indication of how the values you’ve read about or heard from the senior leaders are practised. Do the displays recognise successes? Honours Boards, School Captains, House Ambassadors (or whatever titles are used by the school) – are they used in a meaningful way to acknowledge where children have practised social and moral values that are promoted at school?

Break time is valuable time

Staying around for break time can give you a real sense of how children are able to interact on their own terms during play time and how social interactions are working.

Emotional attachment and responses that children form to key parts of the school – such as the break or play areas – have an important role in building a sense of belonging and learner identity. Are the children observing the rules, interacting freely?

Social wellbeing

The feeling of inclusion and exclusion by a child are directly influenced by the relationships or friendships they have. Prospective parents should understand how the school caters for social wellbeing, safeguarding and mental health welfare. How do teachers respond to children’s’ potential concerns. Ask about the school’s learning philosophy, resources available for supporting this? Latterly, this includes social media relationships for children and the importance of recognising and being responsible for their own online safety.

Your gut feeling

Visiting during school hours is the only way to observe children learning. And because friendship building differs between boys and girls, it’s useful to see how the children interact with classmates or other peer groups and how they talk to adults in the classroom. Many schools have an ‘open door’ policy (where the classroom door is open) and parents can observe teaching and learning in action – sometimes the teacher will invite tours to enter the classroom. However, do ask if it’s possible to see a classroom of your choice and gather your own opinion on the atmosphere and if the children are working in a purposeful way. Is there cooperation? How does the classroom grouping practices work? How are girls and boys are encouraged to work together or if activities are segregated by gender?

A school that makes provision for learning that includes how to build and manage relationships and friendships is essential in teaching important life and social lessons to children – and ultimately may be more likely to be a place where your child can flourish, reach their full potential and develop valuable lifelong skills.

About The Author

Carmella Hunt is an independent school marketing and communications adviser and was Head of Communications and Marketing for a British school in the UAE for over 6 years.

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