When Isobel Walters guides parents through the process of switching a child’s school, she speaks from first-hand experience. In the 1990s she stayed at her first independent senior school for only eight weeks before changing to another. ‘The second school was just as academic, but it focused a lot more on sport,’ she says. ‘I started on the sport, and I was away — the move worked well.’
Walters, who runs IW Schooling Consultants, has used her own life lesson to advise clients. She quotes a recent example of a girl who came from abroad to study at a girls’ boarding school in a London suburb, only to find that, having grown up in the countryside, she did not fit in with town girls who were keener on shopping than riding. ‘Within three or four weeks the parents had decided she wasn’t happy,’ Walters says. ‘We all worked together through that first term — the parents, the school and I — trying to find ways to make her more comfortable. But she still wasn’t happy.’ In the second term she switched to a rural boarding school.
But even if parents know that switching may prove the best decision in the end, they still need to ask themselves precise questions before making that decision. The first is about the timing. Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School, Wimbledon, asked 13-year-old fourth-form boys how long it took them to settle in. Their general reply: ‘In the first week they’re too excited and overwhelmed to work out if they’re happy; in their second they begin to worry; in their third they start to settle in.’ Given this, in most circumstances he counsels parents against raising concerns in the first few weeks.
Other heads generally agree. If, after this point, parents feel that their children are unhappy or not doing well academically, they should approach the school. Graham Hawley, headmaster of Loretto School near Edinburgh, says that at this juncture ‘I advise the parents against going straight to the head, banging down the door and saying, “There is a catastrophic problem here” because there probably isn’t.’ Schools have, he says, an established procedure that should be followed because it works well. In Loretto’s case, the first port of call is usually the tutor. Parents should expect from him or her, says Hawley, a specific ‘action plan’, and they should give the school about a term to see if this works. An action plan, various heads tell me, might involve extra one-to-one teaching for academic problems, or encouraging the child to take up a new organised activity with like-minded schoolmates if they are not making friends or are a homesick boarder. Heads and consultants say these solutions will work in most cases, because the problem is usually, as Magnus Bashaarat, headmaster of Milton Abbey in Dorset, puts it, ‘transitional’: the child simply needs to get used to a new environment.
Although Milton Abbey, a small, friendly, less high-pressure school, has a reputation for successfully assimilating children transferring from other places, Bashaarat downplays the need for switching — on the grounds that parents have usually done their homework well: ‘It’s very very rare for parents to make the wrong choice when they have done an awful lot of research, and visited the school three for four times.’
Tim Wilbur, director of schools consultancy at Gabbitas Educational Consultants, says that in his 14 years as a headmaster, an average of one child a year switched from another school. Parents need to think very carefully about the destination school, to avoid a second problem. Hawley of Loretto suggests looking at three or four alternatives and Wilbur says: ‘There’s no point changing to another high-flying school if the child is already at a high-flying school and it doesn’t suit them. There’s no point in changing from like to like.’ He remembers one girl who got on ‘unbelievably well’ after switching to his school. ‘We catered for children who were a little bit different,’ he says — a highly altered environment compared with the original school. ‘She was different because she was a brilliant artist and had people in the art department learning from her.’
She thrived, because the problem was not inherent to her, but with the choice of school. However, most heads say that this is an anomaly. In most cases, the problem is not magically solved by changing school.
Hawley has seen four children transferred from other places to Loretto in this academic year. Three have worked pretty well, but for the fourth: ‘I’m not sure it has been the absolute panacea the parents had hoped for.’ He concludes: ‘Sometimes the child doesn’t particularly like whatever school they’re in, so finding the root cause of the difficulty is really important’ — whether that’s in the school, in the home or in the child.