Martin Barker's View from the Top

Headmaster Martin Barker shares his view on choosing the right senior school for your child with education guide and consultancy, Talk Education

While finances are undeniably front of mind for many parents choosing an independent senior school in the current climate, hopefully when you have got past that hurdle, you will be able to enjoy a fulfilling journey of finding the perfect senior school for your child. One that really sees them thrive as they grow into adulthood.

As many of you will know, paying for your child’s education is probably the second biggest expense you will incur in your lifetime, aside from your house, and so making the right decision matters from a wide variety of perspectives, but of course most importantly the happy and successful journey of your child.

So, ask yourself a question – what does ‘thrive’ at school actually mean to you? Is it success in academia, resilience and a ‘can do’ attitude, friends for life, the chance to be challenged, access to a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities, or perhaps preparation for the future workplace? In reality I suspect it will be a blend of all of these factors but, moreover, make sure that the culture of the school fully fits with your aspirations and expectations.

To board or not to board is an early question that I ask many of my parents. Quite simply, if you are open to boarding, it will open up a larger number of options for you to consider. Boarding has of course changed markedly over the years, with many schools a great deal more flexible in their offering. In my view, independence and being better able to manage friendships, as well as diverse personalities, are still the most compelling arguments for boarding. It does add value for many. Of course, a school like Westbourne House provides a well-supported (and much loved!) boarding experience – a way to grow independence gently if boarding is a consideration for the future.

Then quickly follows the question ‘how would you like family life to look when your children are teenagers?’. Many of you will be considering senior school choices when your child is in Year 5, and barely 10 years old – have you even begun to imagine your children as teenagers, with all that goes with that phase of life?! It is a serious consideration though, and particularly if you are choosing a school with some level of boarding - how close will that school be in order for you to attend matches, concerts or other school events, particularly if travel is through peak times on busy roads? Is it manageable? Your contact with your child is another aspect that you might like to consider as part of this, but do bear in mind that most children go to senior school with a mobile phone these days, so you should never feel out of touch with your child. Remember to ask how a school manages mobile phones or what the contact and visiting arrangements are.

So having sorted those questions out, the journey begins in earnest. Is a school a good fit for my child? You should be heavily reliant on your Prep School Head to give you the best and most current advice on this point – a school may have changed over the years and so your perception of it may be out of date. As a Head, I visit schools and catch up with Heads and staff, so I’m able to give my parents the most up to date information and advice. Academically, many schools rely on pre-testing and CAT scores to inform their admissions process, but will take account of a school reference and an interview (if part of their process). Again, your Head should be able to give you a balanced picture as to whether a school could be in reach, or too challenging. You do, of course, have to manage the crystal ball somewhat here – a child’s academic performance at 10 years old may not match their potential, and so you should always keep that in mind. Finding a school that your child will enjoy is also important – if your child is a football aficionado, then selecting a school that only plays rugby won’t necessarily work. 

I would say that the optimum number of schools to visit would be four, but this is obviously a personal preference. Sometimes it is worth visiting a school that you may not think you like, but use it to compare and contrast with other schools, and you never know, you may like it, or it may affirm your view of the school you first thought you liked! 

Open Day or private visit? If you are able, do both. Open Days are selling events designed to impress, and they may well do that, but do you really get a feel for the school on an average day? Do you get to see how the children interact, or how the teachers interact with each other and the children? The feel of a school is often a deciding factor for many.

Should my child visit with me? Not necessarily. While you will certainly want to show your child their new school at some point, do bear in mind that they may well be looking at very different things to you! They are also likely to be heavily influenced by their peer group in some instances too, which may not be helpful for you.

What happens if something goes wrong for your child at the new school? You would certainly want to know that your child is being looked after if there are any instances of bullying, or they are struggling with their work. How robust are the support systems in terms of picking up issues, and also dealing with them? Important questions to ask.

Also important to know is how a school is addressing the issue of ‘future proofing’ your child’s education. Clearly, the world of work is changing and new skills, adaptability, curiosity and positive attitudes are needed – how is the school addressing this? At Westbourne House, we focus on giving children a toolbox of higher thinking and interpersonal skills for the future, but how will this be developed further at their next school?

‘The school’ for you may become obvious very quickly, but for many it may be a difficult decision, particularly given your child’s tender age. In which case, keep your options open – what may look like a reasonable choice in Year 5 may not look quite the same when your child is in Year 7. Make sure you are clear about when deposits are required by the senior school in order that you can make the right call, and liaise all the while with your Prep School Head to help make the right decision. 

Good luck!

View from the Top: Martin Barker on choosing the right senior school for your child (

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