by Polly Rutt
Rydes Hill Preparatory School
Sarah Norville has been a Headteacher for 16 years, 11 of which were spent in the state sector whilst the past five years have been in the independent sector. Her experience ranges from working in an inner-city environment to the leafy suburbs of Guildford. Here, she describes what in her view are the fundamental differences between a state and independent education and advises parents on what they should consider when thinking about a school for their child.
How would you describe the current landscape of schooling in Surrey?
Surrey’s good state schools are oversubscribed with a lot of competition to get into them. This often means parents don’t always get their first choice of school. However, in Surrey, there are many great schools offering very different things. This allows parents to locate a school which speaks to the individual needs and character of their child.
Having gained a lot of experience in both the independent and state sectors, how would you describe the differences between them?
I would say that the biggest difference is around the freedom independent schools have when defining the wider curriculum which is often built around the real-life needs of pupils. State schools generally have a greater focus on maths and English as performance in this area is judged by OFSTED. As independent schools have smaller class sizes and a longer school day, they can reach the same maths and English standard within less time, which enables them to offer a wider breadth of subjects with specialist teachers. The offerings of enrichment activities, depend on the school. Independent schools consistently offer an abundance of clubs and extra curriculars often led by their specialist teachers. However, I also know of many state schools that have an amazing after-school offering for their pupils.
Have you noticed any common misconceptions that people may have on either independent or state schools?
Definitely! Many people think that all independent schools are like Harrow and Eaton where the parents are incredibly wealthy and their children live a life of extreme privilege. This is not my experience of the independent sector. Most pupils at my school have two hard working parents who are making sacrifices to prioritise a good education for their child. Of course, those types of schools exist, but not all independent schools are inaccessible and elitist. On the flip side, some independent school parents believe that a state school education is not as high quality. Actually, in terms of academic results, maths and English in particular, their outcomes are just as good which is why so many state school children go on to independent senior schools and top universities.
In your experience, what commonly drives a parent to choose an independent school?
Parents tend to like the smaller class sizes at independent schools which help to ensure that their child doesn’t get lost in a busy classroom environment. Independent school class sizes typically range from 15-20 whereas state school class sizes can go beyond 30. In addition, parents are attracted to the breadth of curriculum offered at independent schools.
What are the main barriers that prevent parents from choosing an independent school and do you see any ways they can be overcome?
Cost is probably the main barrier for a lot of people. However, there are options available that may be helpful. For example, most independent schools have bursary schemes that are specifically for families that without a bursary, wouldn’t have access to the education on offer. Many independent schools offer scholarships, which are based on the merits of a child, such as their academic ability. Their success would secure a percentage off the school fees – which varies across schools. In addition to cost, some parents worry that they won’t ‘fit in’. However, in my experience independent schools can be both socioeconomically and ethnically diverse and shouldn’t be overlooked.
What advice would you give to any parent currently considering a school for their child?
Your child has one chance, one education and quite often one school, it is therefore critical to visit as many schools that are a possibility for your child as you can. You should base your decision on your gut feeling, not what anyone else tells you as what is a great school for one child, may not fit so well for another. My Head of Nursery says that when you go and visit a school it should feel like it’s giving you a hug, and if it doesn’t, it’s not the right school for your child. Ultimately, we are talking about four and five year olds starting their educational journey. It’s important that they settle in quickly, feel safe, valued and confident – these things can’t happen if it doesn’t ‘feel right’.
Rydes Hill is an outstanding independent preparatory school and nursery in Guildford, educating girls from 3-11 and boys from 3-7. www.rydeshill.com