Berkshire Mummies recently conducted an interview with Joanna Leach, Headmistress at Highfield Preparatory School in Maidenhead. We spoke about what parents should be looking for when selecting schools for their children.
Please tell me a little bit about your background?
I have been involved in education for over 20 years. I started off in the state sector and have taught all ages from EYFS to Year 6 and I then became a Head of a state school in 2010. In 2015, I decided to take on a new challenge and I moved over to the independent sector and had the absolute privilege of becoming the Headteacher of Highfield Preparatory School and I have been here ever since!
How would you describe Highfield Prep?
Highfield Prep is a small, family orientated school now taking boys aged 2-7 and girls aged 2-11. We are a nurturing school with small classes and outstanding specialist teachers who provide an inspiring education resulting in resilient, independent children, which is big on equality, opportunity and emotional IQ. Highfield is a lively school, sustaining values which encourage children to develop a love of learning and to discover their own strengths in a caring atmosphere where every person is valued. Highfield aims to develop skills for life: self-confidence, resilience, independence, respect for others and the environment, creativity and imagination and a desire to live life to the full. At Highfield, we’re proud to offer an all round education which has helped to deliver a 100% pass rate in the 11 Plus this year, as well as our girls achieving 10 scholarships between them in Year 6.
How should a parent ‘shortlist’ schools for their child?
Shortlisting the school for your child can be quite intimidating and choosing the right independent school for your child is one of the most important decisions a parent can make. Not only is it a big commitment financially but more importantly, it’s a priceless investment in your child’s future and this is why you should always have a shortlist to have a look at before finalising your choice.
Independent schools are not all about the academics and parents are just as concerned about other factors that can make all the difference to their child’s happiness and wellbeing at school: the pastoral care; scope for developing a particular enthusiasm such as in sport or the arts, and the availability of extra support if needed.
Where can parents find information about the schools they are interested in?
There are all sorts of ways that parents can find out about schools but the most popular one is via google and searching for independent schools in the chosen geographical area; for example, inputting ‘Prep schools in Maidenhead’ or input a specific element that you want in your school of choice such as ‘All girls prep in Maidenhead’. This then gives you a good starting point as to which schools there are and once you have done this then go to the individual school’s website and take it from there. All of the social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram are also very good at showcasing some of the things that schools do.
From your experience what should a parent be looking for when picking the right school for a child?
First of all, there is no one else in the world that understands your child better than you! As parents you know what your child might need academically, socially and emotionally for them to thrive and be happy not only at Primary level but Senior as well, which is all we ever want for our children. The most important thing to remember is that every child is unique and some will flourish best in a more competitive environment. Others will do better in a smaller, more homely setting where the emphasis is more on nurturing creative and communication skills. There is no one best school that suits all children equally.
What questions should a parent ask when looking to invest in a school?
The kind of questions that I think a parent should ask would be:
- The overarching question is if I invest in this school what will my child gain-will it give YOU value for money for what you want?
- Do you like the feel of the school?
- Do the schools values and aims align with yours?
- What kind of sports/science/arts facilities do they have?
- What type of curriculum do they follow and what specialist teachers do they have?
- What is the turnover of staff like?
- How do they deal with bullying/behaviour at school?
- Where do the children move onto senior schools wise?
- What are the results like?
How important is a visit to the school before investing and should parents feel comfortable asking to visit a school more than once?
Schools are all about people and atmosphere, so a visit is a key part of the decision process. Visiting four or five schools is about right, as seeing more can be confusing and is usually unnecessary. It is also far better to visit the schools on a normal school day as opposed to an open day as you will be able to see how it operates on a day-to-day basis. As a Head, I always welcome a second, or even a third visit from parents as I know how important and how big the decision is to send your child to an independent school having gone through the process myself. You will always have questions that you would have like to have asked, or something that you would have liked to have seen so I always encourage parents to do that.
Do you think by having a good relationship with the Head and buying into their vision and approach is key when looking to invest in a school?
Absolutely! The vision and values of the school are set by the tone and leadership of the Headteacher and parents need to have that trust and belief in that Headteacher. The relationship between a Headteacher and the families is so important. I truly believe that when this partnership is formed this is what makes the school a true community; everyone having the same shared visions and dreams in wanting the very best for all of our children.
Is it as simple as going with your ‘gut-feeling’?
I always say to my prospective parents that you do more often than not get the ‘gut-feeling’ of whether a school is right for your child. I encourage all parents to visit other possible schools so they definitely feel if we are the right school for them. Even though this takes care of the ‘emotional’ aspect of choosing a school, I might also encourage parents to attend open days, look at inspection reports and maybe listen and see what current parents are saying on the grapevine/social media about the school.
Finally, what 3 places would you recommend for families in Berkshire?
- Norden Farm is a firm favourite of ours at Highfield. A wonderful arts centre with various children’s activities, comedy nights, creative workshops, theatre shows and a café; it’s certainly one for all the family.
- Redroofs is a fantastic theatre school offering dance and acting classes to children.
- Ray Mill Island is a wonderful outside space to explore with children. Adjacent to Boulters Lock, Ray Mill Island is a great place to take the family for a picnic with a play area, guinea pig and bird enclosure and café in the summer.
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