Navigating the application process for independent schools in Scotland can bring up a lot of questions - from when is the right time to apply, to how to assess your various options.
To help answer the most common questions, we sat down with Fiona Gordon, Head of Admissions at Fettes College in Edinburgh.
When is the best time to apply for an independent school in Scotland? Do timelines differ from primary to secondary school?
Each school has its own well-defined and transparent admissions process, and there may be variations in timelines between Primary, Prep, and Senior Schools.
It is always advisable to check with each school, however - generally speaking - it is best to submit your application at least one year prior to entry (e.g., August 2023 for entry in August 2024).
How does the application process vary between independent schools in Scotland?
There is such a wide variety of schools in Scotland including day schools, girls-only, boarding and day schools offering different examination systems (Scottish exams, A Levels, IB). As a result, there are many different application processes which can often be confusing for parents when looking at several schools.
My advice to parents would be to create a shortlist of no more than 3 schools for comparison. Look into the admissions process of these schools and reach out to admissions staff as they will be delighted to guide parents through the process.
What steps should families take to research schools?
Parents and students should begin by exploring several school websites to get a sense of each school. Additionally, reaching out to families with students currently attending the schools of interest can provide valuable insights.
Once you've narrowed down your choices, it's essential to make direct contact with the admissions staff. I recommend starting the process approximately two years in advance and formally registering at least one year in advance (although do check with the schools in case they operate long waiting lists!).
Do you recommend visiting the school?
Having worked in schools for almost 30 years I believe visiting a few schools is essential and meeting the Head is particularly important. Most schools offer Open Days and whilst this is an excellent opportunity to get a feel for the school, I would recommend parents arrange individual visits once they have narrowed down their choice. During these visits, don’t hesitate to speak with key staff members such as the Head of Music or Head of Sport.
What entrance exams should families be aware of as part of the application process?
Most schools will require students to complete entrance assessments, although some schools may accept references or interviews in place of assessments. Depending on the school and the level of entry, students may need to complete English and Maths tests or specific subject tests, particularly if they plan to join 6th Form.
Are interviews with the head of the school a standard part of the application process, and if so, what should applicants expect during these interviews?
Certainly, many Heads will be part of the application process although when there are many applicants, interviews may be shared between several members of the Senior Management Team including the Head, Deputy Head of Academic and Deputy Head of Pastoral.
Applicants should prepare for questions about their ambitions and knowledge of the school but also questions they may not expect – applicants should be able to think out of the box rather than have all their answers prepared in advance. Staying informed about current affairs can also be beneficial.
Are there any scholarships or financial aid opportunities available for independent schools?
Most schools offer scholarships and bursaries with scholarship awards typically offering lower remission than bursaries. However, it's important to note that there are usually more bursary applicants than available funds, so not all families seeking financial aid may receive it. Scholarship awards are typically not means-tested, whereas bursary awards are.
Does the application process differ for international or overseas students? What are the additional requirements?
Again, many schools have different approaches, and the process is likely to be different for different ages of pupils. Some students may be asked to complete online assessments, while those with English as an Additional Language may need to take a written English test alongside other assessment papers.
Ultimately, schools aim to assess whether students can handle the curriculum offered. It's worth noting that schools regularly review their processes to ensure they are up-to-date and effective.
What advice would you offer to parents and students to maximise their chances of a successful application to an independent school in Scotland?
After 30 years working in the independent sector, I think the best piece of advice I can give is to thoroughly research the schools to ensure the school of choice is an excellent fit for your child.
If families are looking at a boarding school, look into the number of full-time boarders and Saturday morning lessons to assess whether the school is busy and vibrant at the weekend. Check fees carefully – some schools include everything in their fees while others may charge for extras. Finally, I recommend parents meet with the Headteacher of the school they are most interested in.