How to choose the perfect prep school for your child
A school photograph of over 300 children and 40 staff must, 50 years ago, have belonged to a secondary school. Now it could be a preparatory school. Originally small proprietor-owned institutions whose task was to prepare boys of 8-13 for boarding schools, most have now grown and diversified.
Though there are still good small schools, economies of scale have forced the majority to double, or treble, in size. Competition has driven them into mergers and expansion into nursery and pre-prep. Many are now coeducational. Large numbers of schools failed to survive the changes; but the remainder have emerged as powerful forces in independent education.
This is not lost on parents, particularly at a time when value for money is all-important. In some areas, a prep school education is seen as the best preparation for the 11-plus exam and a free place in a grammar school. Where there are no grammar schools, a good prep school grounding could be the surest way to a means-tested scholarship at a reputable independent secondary school or a bursary to deserving cases.
And there is the growing realisation that a good primary education is the best educational purchase for those who cannot afford daunting secondary-school fees. It can create in its pupils a sense of aspiration and lay excellent foundations in core subjects such as maths, English and science.
The ratio of staff to pupils is extremely good, on average about 1:10. Prep schools offer excellent extra-curricular programmes. Co-education has not only doubled the potential clientele; it has also helped to broaden the curriculum, particularly in the direction of music and the creative arts.
Sports play a major part, particularly in rural schools. This is important: children of primary age need to run around and spend their energy in constructive ways. Sports programmes bring working parents regularly into school at weekends, allowing informal conversations with teachers.
All this is good news. The bad news is the cost. Weekly boarding fees can be up to around £20,000 per year. Day fees vary considerably but can still be as much as £13,000. Day places are much sought after in the best urban schools. Early registration for these is advisable, though to register at birth is to take matters to extremes.
Most parents, in choosing a school, will visit two or three schools locally. If so, it’s probably worth bearing in mind the following: choose the head you are impressed by and feel comfortable with; you will want to contact the school quite often and won’t want to feel awkward or fussy.
Go to an open day so that you can see a cross-section of the teachers (not just the few best) and assess them.
Have a look at the inspection report, generally published online by the school. Look particularly at the quality of teaching and learning and of the pastoral care. How much independent learning is there? Are behavioural and social issues, such as bullying, discussed in assemblies and in personal and social education lessons?
The facilities don’t have to be lavish; but it’s important that there are signs of money well spent (science labs, library, ample space and equipment for the arts and plenty of space and facilities for sports).
Results: there should be a record of academic ambition and exam success. But these should be achieved without undue pressure and spoon-feeding. It’s important to have a childhood.
The name “preparatory school” suggests a rehearsal for something else. But these years aren’t a rehearsal: they’re an important part of the play itself.
Tommy Cookson has been Head at Sevenoaks School, Winchester College and King Edward VI, Southampton