Independent Schools Guide: see for yourself how the sector's schools line up

Teamwork at Wellington School, where prospective pupils are invited to join their potential classmates on taster days intended to give an accurate flavour of scholasticlife at the Ayr place of learning (Photo: CRAIG&EVA SANDERS PHOTOGRAPHY)
Teamwork at Wellington School, where prospective pupils are invited to join their potential classmates on taster days intended to give an accurate flavour of scholasticlife at the Ayr place of learning (Photo: CRAIG&EVA SANDERS PHOTOGRAPHY)

The sector is widely diverse, so visiting at least one school is essential when it comes to choosing a child’s place of learning.

Each institution opens its doors to families throughout the year, showcasing what life is like there for students.

St Mary’s School in Melrose hosts an annual Bang Goes the Borders science festival, comprising presentations and interactive workshops at its Abbey Park Campus.

The preparatory school offers day education and boarding, equipping students with the skills required to go on to secondary school.

Headteacher Liam Harvey acknowledges: “Being in a smaller community where the oldest pupil in the school is 13 years old has huge benefits.

“Young, charismatic staff tend to be the role models for our pupils who aren’t influenced by older pupils. Sampling that leadership responsibility at the top of a standalone prep school really sets pupils up for a sense of right and wrong, and helps them understand who they want to be as teenagers.”

Similarly, East Lothian’s only independent primary, The Compass School, is dedicated to educating children up to the age of 12.

Its open day is held on a normal working day, with tours run by the pupils.

Headteacher Mark Becher advises attendees to have questions prepared: “People should be writing a list of what they want to know about the school, jot questions down, or put them in their phone so they can refer to them.

“Over the years, we have had many people visiting so we have an idea of the sort of questions likely to be asked, but people might have something specific to themselves.

“Open days are all about us being here and ready to answer any question... there is no silly question.

“Life is never dull here, and we want to enrich each child and help them to develop their life skills.”

Personal tours with Becher are available throughout the year, and taster days are encouraged to allow children to experience a school day there, while providing staff with the opportunity to assess the individual’s needs.

“Taster days are important because children have a lot of anxieties about going to a new school and how they will fit in, especially if they haven’t been to an independent school before,” says Simon Johnson, headmaster at Wellington School in Ayr.

During a taster day there, the youngster will be placed in their potential class, which Johnon believes will remove any misconceptions they may have if experiencing the sector for the first time.

He adds: “Children and parents often believe that the vast majority of pupils will have gone right through the school together from day one, so think they will be a tight-knit social group that is impossible to break into. That is not true, we have pupils joining every year and at all stages of the year.

“As soon as pupils come for a taster day, they realise that what they may have seen as a threat is a chance of a new friend.”

For those seeking a specialist establishment for the musically gifted, St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh has a virtual open day for parents to ask questions and view videos.

Instrumentalists are invited to attend a performance or improvisation class at the school and bring their instrument to participate.

Prospective pupils can submit a video of their performance, which will be reviewed within 48 hours, and advisory auditions are held monthly, with a main audition held each term.

Headteacher Dr Kenneth Taylor advises: “It is really about focusing on the things that makes this school unique, which is the fact it is a music school but somewhere pupils can study their academic subjects as well.

“Around half of the pupil’s day is based on music activities. Although we offer that same academic coverage that you would get elsewhere, there is less time for each curricular area and so lessons need to be more focussed.

“That works here because we have much smaller class sizes than most schools, so the pupils and teachers form working relationships.”

At Fairview International School at Bridge of Allan, Stirling, tours are personalised to each family.

Scotland’s only school to offer the full International Baccalaureate continuum of all three IB programmes, staff there develop a personal approach with families as soon as possible.

“The pupils will talk confidently about the things they like or dislike, and that gives parents a strong indication of the type of students we are developing here from the earliest years of primary,” headteacher David Hicks maintains.

“The main thing is giving a flavour of our school, so we follow up with a personal communication and approach to offer bespoke tours for individual families and taster days for children to see what it is like.”

He advises parents to ask if the children are happy at the school: “It is an important aspect for us, as we want the children to be happy and safe. If you have that, and they feel looked after, that is key because the experience around the curriculum makes a more complete one for the children.”

In Perth, meanwhile, Glenalmond College is a co-educational boarding school thriving in a rural setting where there is the opportunity to study a BTEC in countryside management.

School warden Mark Mortimer is keen to meet parents on open days, and suggests they consider how the school can get the best out of each individual, and how its staff can ensure students work well together.

“I am a big believer in getting a feel for the school and those first impressions,” he says. “It is really important that people come and really experience the college.”

The staff there help boarders settle in by providing a packed programme of activities, throughout the first week.

Mortimer states: “It is a change moving from being a day pupil to a boarder, and it may be the first time they have been away from home, which is something we are well aware of.

“Pastoral care is the most important thing in any school, and therefore we make sure our pastoral care is outstanding.”

Those seeking a boarding or day school for their daughter should look to St George’s School in Edinburgh.

Their open day allows guardians of potential pupils to explore everything from its nursery provision through to its to upper sixth form,
which St George’s headteacher, Carol Chandler-Thompson, describes as “absolutely invaluable because it offers a sense of how well students are known by staff and the culture of
the place”.

“What is really powerful about an all-girls’ environment is there is no sense of stereotype or limits on the students,” she says.

“They see strong female role models everywhere they go, and there are no subjects or sports just for girls or boys. There is a real sense of possibility in the environment, which encourages them to take the risk and have a go.”

Flexi-boarding is a popular choice for students at St George’s and allows them to stay one or two nights a week, which is ideal for busy working parents and is good preparation for future
full-time boarders.

Ensuring students settle into school with ease is just as important at Hamilton College, a non-denominational Christian day school in South Lanarkshire that caters for young people between the ages of two and 18.

Every new pupil benefits from their own individual tour before they start there.

Its open day is split into two sessions, one in the morning and one in the evening, with attendees given the opportunity to meet staff, have a tour of the school, and hear from headteacher Richard Charman.

He observes: “Each family approaches the process differently depending on where they are in their own decision making. The parents may come along on a first visit without their children, but bring them along to a second or third visit depending on where they are in the process.

“There is one fundamental question I ask every young person when they come to me and that is, ‘will I be happy here?’. If the answer is yes, then they will thrive in this environment where our teachers and young people look after everybody.”

Open days

The Compass School

Haddington, East Lothian
Saturday, 30 September

Fairview International School

Bridge of Allan, Stirling

Thursday, 26 October

Glenalmond College


Saturday, 30 September

​Hamilton College

South Lanarkshire

Wednesday, 4 October

St George’s School


Saturday, 7 October

St Mary’s School

Melrose, Scottish Borders

Bang Goes the Borders festival Saturday, 16 September

St Mary’s Music School


Sunday, 8 October

Wellington School Ayr

Individual tours by appointment and taster days are available throughout the school year

- This article first appeared in The Scotsman’s Independent Schools Guide, published on Saturday 16 September