Good Schools Guide -
State Education Information from the Good Schools Guide

The importance of finding good schools and providing a stable education is a perennial problem for Forces families. According to a 2011 survey conducted by Army Families Federation (AFF), parents unanimously stated their children were adversely affected by frequent moves and differing curricula, continual quests to find good schools (often at short notice and part way through the school year) and making and maintaining friendships. With such strong sentiments it's little wonder many consider boarding school as the only viable option for their children. But, with allowances on the wane, eligibility for Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA) in a state of flux, and uncertainty in the air, how can families provide stability in education without handcuffing themselves to the bank manager’s desk?

One possibility is to invest in a state boarding school education. Tuition is free, facilities are good, places prized and fees a fraction of their independent school counterparts (typically around £10k per annum compared to £30k at some top independent schools). There are 38 state boarding schools nationwide, offering a mix of provision; nine are selective, others welcome all-comers (though those with anything more than mild SEN should cast an ever beady-eye over offerings). Places for boys and girls aged under 11 are offered only at the Royal Alexandra and Albert School in Reigate, with St Brigid's School in North Wales (the only Welsh state boarding school) catering for girls aged 3-18. A handful offer boys-only education. If an affordable all-girls school is important, look at Girls' Schools Association schools which provide a good education at competitive prices. Boy or girl, don't forget to check-out the independent sector; many will broker a fees deal, with a number aiming to meet CEA +10% .

State boarding schools do not have the same freedom that independent schools enjoy. They must adhere to codes of practice such as those laid down for SEN and for School Admissions, though they can make Forces families a priority for boarding places (after looked-after children) if they wish. State boarding schools are permitted to interview children to ascertain suitability to board. If the school is academically selective, any place will depend on success in entrance tests. Generally, class-sizes will be large, close to or at maximum levels permitted (32 in England) and the National Curriculum, together with any Government wheezes, must be followed. The quality of accommodation and of fixtures, fittings, activities and extras varies; some have brand new, state of the art facilities others are more basic or frayed. Few can offer the finery and frippery that top independent schools flaunt.

If you are posted close to a boarding school, CEA regulations currently permit your child to attend as a day pupil but the school must have a published day school prospectus showing your child will not be disadvantaged on changing from boarder to day and have a place for the child to board subsequently, otherwise any right to CEA is likely to be forfeited. We caution that not all state boarding schools offer completely free day places. Gordon’s School, Surrey is one example of a state boarding school that levies a compulsory 'extra' charge (in excess of £6k per annum) on its day pupils.

Don't assume once you've seen one school you've seen 'em all. Read inspection reports and independently written school reviews, such as those by The Good Schools Guide - we feature all schools, review almost half of all state boarding schools and have extensive data and analysis enabling you (if you are a subscriber) to compare school performance and find the best school for your child. Peruse school magazines, brochures and newsletters. is there lots happening? Does everyone get a turn or do the same 'stars' shine bright? Is there sport for all, or just teams for the elite? What about bands, choirs and orchestras? Are trips included and inclusive? Do the school's post-16 offerings match your aspirations?

Visit schools, soak up the atmosphere. How do pupils interact with each other, and with staff? What do they think of the head, the caretaker, matron, the cleaner? Will the school welcome all off-spring regardless of talents and aptitude or their dearth? Scrutinise results and value-added (do schools get more out of pupils than expected, or are they falling flat). Find out what they're doing to address weak areas – especially if those are subjects where your child shines. When seeking out a school, families typically highlight academic performance as their top priority but a staggering 91% of Forces give top billing to pastoral care – so scrutinise this. Speak at length to those who will be looking after your child. Do their ideas match yours? If not, does it matter? When and how will you and your child be able to get in contact? Some will dine in-house others centrally; some schools virtually empty at weekends with only a limited programme of activities, others make it compulsory for children to be in school at weekends. What happens on high days and holidays? Once the holiday bell tolls you're responsible for your child, and it’s important to have arrangements and reinforcements in place, but any school worth its salt will have a 'will-co' outlook – help with airport arrangements, identify a CRB taxi company or navigate train-ticket purchase. Ask to be put in contact with other Forces families at the school, see if the school really delivers on all its promises.

Finally, if you intend to claim CEA, do not sign on the dotted line for any school before you've consulted CEAS, and had your entitlement confirmed and triple stamped! CEAS will guide you in your choices but, if you want an independent view, consider using a consultancy service – The Good Schools Guide Advice Service (GSGAS) is highly regarded and run by the very people who visit and review the schools but a pre-agreed fee will be charged for their services. Think too, how you would be fixed if your entitlement to CEA ceased before your child completed their education. Naturally, if you don't intend to claim CEA you have a right to please yourself about if/when your child boards, which schools they attend and for how long.

Sandra Hutchinson is an Army wife and mother, Editor of The Good Schools Guide Online and of The Good Schools Guide - Special Educational Needs. She is a former World-wide Education Specialist to Army Families. The Good Schools Guide features all UK schools, reviews 1200+ and offers all Forces families a 20% discount on the price of an annual subscription when they use the code FORC3520