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What is a prep school?

What is a prep school?
A prep school education can be the stepping stone to a place at one of the UK's best secondary schools. We explain how the system works.

As their name suggests, preparatory (prep) schools are schools whose main purpose is to prepare children for entrance to a private secondary school. These independent, fee-paying schools usually take children aged eight to 13, although at girls’ and mixed prep schools children often move up to senior school at 11.

There’s a lot to think about if you’re considering a prep school for your child, especially as the schools are so diverse. ‘Because the schools are independent, they’re free to set their own fees, curriculum and admission arrangements, and all will have their own strengths, says James Hand of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS).

Teaching and curriculum in prep schools

Being independent, prep schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum. All of the schools in the IAPS commit to following strict criteria for delivering a broad curriculum, but they’re free to decide how and what to teach. ‘Their independence means they can deliver an education that’s tailored to the child, not dictated by the Government,’ says James. ‘Many of our schools place a focus on traditional values, but all have a very modern outlook. The wealth of performing arts and sports activities on offer is incredible.’

Children at prep schools are more likely to be taught by subject specialists, rather than having one teacher who takes the same class all week. For instance, they may have different teachers for science, languages and PE. Class sizes also tend to be smaller – one of the big advantages of independent schools.

How are children assessed?

As with their independence from the national curriculum, prep schools also have the freedom to assess children in any way they see fit. Children don’t have to take SATs or other Department for Education tests, like the Year 1 phonics screening check, but are likely to take exams at the end of each school year.

A child’s prep schooling builds up to the Common Entrance Exam, which is used in the selection process for many independent senior schools at age 13. Preparation for Common Entrance is the main focus of children’s learning in Years 7 and 8, with a broad syllabus and strong academic focus. Common Entrance is usually taken at the child’s own prep school.

In areas where there are state grammar schools, prep schools may also prepare children to take the 11+.

Extra-curricular activities

One of the advantages of independent prep schools is that they often have better facilities and a wider range of extra-curricular activities than state primary schools – from music and drama to sports. Some schools even have their own golf courses.

Choosing the right prep school for your child

There are many factors to consider when looking for a prep school, and each family will have their own priorities. Questions to consider include:

  • Would you prefer a single sex or mixed school?
  • Do you want the option of boarding?
  • Do you want a school with a religious leaning, or strictly secular?
  • Do you want an all-through school, where pupils go straight from prep to senior school under one roof?
  • What are the facilities like?
  • Do you like the headteacher and the rest of the staff?
  • What are the class sizes like, and how many classes are there per year group?
  • How many applicants are there per place?
  • How do they stretch able children?
  • How do they support children with special educational needs?
  • Does the school look clean and well looked after?
  • Do the children seem happy, secure, well behaved and enthusiastic about their school?
  • How do they deal with bullying?
  • What senior schools do children proceed to?

For many parents, though, the deciding factor is the school’s exam results. A school that has high Common Entrance scores means there’s a good chance of your child eventually getting into a top senior school.

How much does it cost?

A prep school education doesn’t come cheap: fees for day pupils range from around £5,000 per year to £15,000 for the best London preps.

However, some children may be eligible for complete or partial assistance with fees. ‘We run a School Access Scheme, which gives families who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to offer their child a prep school education the chance to do so,’ explains James. ‘Many schools also have charitable status and provide some financial help.’ In addition, some schools run their own scholarship programmes for academically gifted children or those with an aptitude for a specialist subject like music or sport.

Applying for places at prep schools

The vast majority of prep schools are selective, but the academic standard required will vary. Usually, children are assessed by a combination of:

  • A formal test, known as the 7+: this may be set by the school, or by an external examinations agency, and typically includes maths and English questions. An increasing number of schools also now test verbal and non-verbal reasoning.
  • An interview, which will look at factors such as a child’s behaviour and social skills.
  • A report from their current school.

Some schools will ask children to sit the exam and then invite the top performers to interview; others expect all applicants to complete both the exam and the interview.

Competition for prep school places can be fierce, with 10 or more applicants per place at some of the best schools – although other schools are considerably easier to get into. For this reason, you’ll need to make sure your child is well prepared. If they’re currently at a pre-prep, they’re likely to do a significant amount of work towards the 7+ at school. Otherwise, you’ll need to put in the hours at home or consider tutoring, which, although most preps officially discourage it, is often the preferred option with families applying for preps.

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