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Education for Life - choosing the right prep school

As featured in the recent Diplomat Magazine Education Supplement Mary Murayama, Joint Managing Director of Education Advisers discusses choosing the best independent prep school for entry to a top senior school.

For international parents with young children aged 3-10, finding the best privateschool is always a major priority, but for many families living in or moving into London, getting your child into a school that will meet his or her needs not only now, but in the future, can be a bewildering and stressful process. Bearing in mind that the transition to senior school takes place at the age of 11 or 13, it is vital to look ahead and adopt what we would call an ‘Education for Life’ strategy.

Parents buying into the UK private school system will naturally want the best school for their child. It is invariably prestigious and high ranking senior schools that come to mind, such as Wycombe Abbey, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Winchester College, Eton, St Paul’s and Westminster. These schools and others like them provide young people with an outstanding education and are known the world over. Yet the way into these and other renowned independent schools can be something of a mystery to the uninitiated. A glance at the admissions pages of any school’s website will often raise more questions than it answers. Registration deadlines, pre-testing, house selection, entrance exams, scholarship exams and Common Entrance* are often alien concepts to parents who are unfamiliar with the system and unsure how to best prepare their child.

So how, for example, does a bright seven-year old boy currently at an international school in Singapore get from there to Eton? How does an eight-year old South African girl who is top of her class at her private school in Cape Town win a place at Wycombe Abbey?

Whilst in theory it is possible to get into a top UK senior school directly from an international school or indeed from any state or private school anywhere in the world, in practice the odds are stacked against a child who has not had the advantage of being thoroughly prepared for the whole process. 90 per cent of boys joining Winchester College do so from private prep schools in the UK. A good prep school will give your child a massive head start. Academically, children in a private prep school are often one or two years ahead of their counterparts in a state school.

It therefore makes sense to look at enrolling your child in a prep school with the experience and track record of preparing children for entry into your target senior school.

Whilst it is relatively easy to identify the highest performing senior schools based on their students’ exam results at 16 or 18 (see www.best-schools.co.uk/league-tables) it is much harder to identify the top performing prep schools. Education Advisers has devised a method of ranking prep schools according to the percentage of children who progress to top senior schools. On www.bestprepschools.co.uk we publish two separate tables of top preps, one for London preps which feed mainly into the top London day schools, and one for boarding preps from where children mainly go on to top boarding schools. We are concerned here primarily with ‘stand-alone’ prep schools, where children stay until the age of 11 or 13.

So, what makes some prep schools so much more successful than others at ensuring that their leavers win places at the most prestigious and competitive senior schools? Surprisingly perhaps, it is not all about them being academically selective on entry, although the majority will want your child to pass an admissions test and these become more rigorous the older the child is. The other key factors that will mark out a highly successful prep school are:

  • A comprehensive understanding of the system and how to work it to your child’s advantage. In practice, this means that the headteacher is likely to have excellent links to senior school heads and admissions registrars and an in-depth knowledge of what they are looking for. In our experience as consultants this cannot be underestimated.
  • A focus on the development of the whole child. This sounds cliched but contrary to popular belief, senior schools are not just looking for a string of A* grades. Schools want well-rounded children who are confident communicating with both adults and other children, and who will bring something special to the community whether through sport, art, drama or music. The best prep schools will provide your child with a wealth of opportunities to develop their talents and interests to a level where they can be considered for senior school scholarships.
  • Most importantly of course, the best prep schools will give your child a rigorous academic education, providing a stimulating environment that will go well beyond the requirements of the UK National Curriculum. The best prep schools will offer a broad and exciting curriculum with small classes and excellent teaching, ensuring that children are well prepared for senior school entrance tests and Common Entrance.  

The importance of forward planning can’t be overstated! Given that lead in times for senior school admission can be as long as four or five years it makes sense to start looking at the options as early as possible. You can speak to an experienced adviser about your specific circumstances on +44 1622 813870 or email info@educationadvisers.co.uk quoting Diplomat for a free consultation.