Mix and match state and private education

State and independent schooling

Best of Both Worlds? Mixing State and Independent

All those scary newspaper statistics about the long-term costs of keeping your child in nappies and birthday presents pale into insignificance when set beside the £150,000+ you’ll need to educate a child privately from nursery to university.

But paying for a private education from finger painting to Freshers’ Week is not an option for most families. More people than ever before are opting for the independent sector, but those without private means or surplus wealth often choose to pay selectively.

However you choose to play the education game, be reassured that no decision is final. If something is not working out for you or your child at any point, it’s almost always possible to change, and often much easier to do at a stage when not everyone else is making the same decision.


Move at year 3, age 7/8

State primary school works particularly well if you have an able child who finds little difficulty with the three Rs. At the other extreme, those with serious learning difficulties, particularly if they are ‘statemented’ (officially recognised as needing support) will be given one-to-one help at no charge to you (though you will probably need to fight hard for this). 

Those in the middle may be the ones who thrive least well in a busy primary school — as much psychologically as academically. A hard-pressed teacher with a mixed-ability class of 30 children often simply doesn’t have the energy to focus on this unexciting middle group, and a parent with an under-confident, just-getting-by child may decide it’s worth pinching pennies for the extra attention that a private school can provide. 

If you want to check how a primary school matches up to the private sector, one of the best indicators is the percentage of year 6 children (10-11-year-olds) who achieve level 5 in their key stage 2 Sats — the level that would be expected from the great majority of children in a good prep school. These figures are now included in performance tables and you will find them on our website. However, bear in mind that this probably shows as much about the intake as the quality of teaching. 

Some parents choose to use the state system for the early years only, changing to a prep school at 7 or 8. However, some over- subscribed London prep schools make little allowance for a child who cannot read and write as fluently as candidates from more results-driven pre-preps so you may want to consider coaching at home. Country preps and less pressured schools, on the other hand, may delight in taking youngsters who need their small-class nurturing to bring them along fast.


Move at year 7, age 11


State to private

Many independent schools too, ever mindful of those A level league tables, are increasingly keen to attract the brightest and the best, so much of the emphasis of the 11 plus entrance test is now put on raw IQ, which is generally gauged by verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests (English and maths are also on the menu at many schools though fewer every year). The high- flying City of London School for Boys, for example — which has always had a broad intake in terms of means and social class — takes two-thirds of its 11 plus entrants from the state sector and adjusts its marking according to the provenance of the candidates, giving leeway to those from state primary schools. Even academically and socially elite public schools such as Westminster and Eton are now eager to attract the ablest 11-year-olds from the state sector, and are prepared to educate them in the years between 11 and 13 at their own or allied prep schools. Harrow now provides free prep school education to the brightest boys aged 11-13 from particular London boroughs.

IQ alone, however, is not the only factor. Parents keen to make the transition at this point may wish to hire a tutor (or tutor them themselves) from the middle of year 5 (year 6 is too late!) to solidify their child’s literacy and numeracy and prepare their child for the unfamiliar and idiosyncratic verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests. Alternatively, many prep schools welcome pupils aged 10 or 11 to train them up for senior school entrance at 13 — although this mostly applies to boys’ or co-ed schools and is complicated by senior schools’ increasing tendency to pre-test in year 6 or 7.


Private to state

If you live in an area such as Kent or Buckinghamshire, still primarily served by grammar or selective state schools, the approach is often to concentrate expenditure at primary level. However, if you feel your child doesn’t have the raw material to compete in these immensely cut-throat exams, be prepared to go private all the way. It is hard for some parents to accept that their child’s expensive prep school preparation will not help them through grammar school entrance tests which are increasingly just reasoning papers — and increasingly done online. And the state schools don’t, mostly, interview.


Move at year 12, age 16/17

At odds with the long-standing myth that children from state schools are given preference over similarly-qualified private school applicants by the top universities, recent studies have shown that private school Oxford applicants with three A* grades at A level are significantly more likely to gain a place than those with the same grades from state schools. Of course, offers are mostly made before the exams are taken, but this does suggest that public school polish can tip the balance at interviews. Independent school sixth forms often have scholarships for those with talent in music, art, sports or academics, so transferring to the private sector at this stage can make financial as well as scholastic sense.

However, there are reasons for going the other way too. Many move to state sixth forms for a greater range of A level options and a greater social mix of friends. Sometimes a move after GCSE is an opportunity for a pupil to make a fresh start and can revitalise interest in academic work; a move from single sex to co-ed can also be a source of motivation (though sometimes a mixed blessing). Catchment areas become more flexible at this level, as do religious schools’ requirements of church attendance and so on.




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Subscribers will find detailed exam results and performance information on individual school pages. Visit these 'free to view' schools. Explore results - read our independent reviews*

Invicta Grammar School, Maidstone is a state school for girls aged from 11 to 18, co-ed sixth form

Rokeby School, Kingston upon Thames is an independent school for boys aged from 4 to 13

The Queen's Church of England Primary School, Richmond is a state school for boys and girls aged from 4 to 11.

Swiss Cottage School Development & Research Centre, London is a state special school for boys and girls aged from 2 to 19

Subscribers* to The Good Schools guide can examine:

  • School performance data* for KS2, GCSE and A-level
  • Value-added data* .Does the school make a difference to all pupils or just some?
  • University information*. Details of which universities pupils go on to and what they study.
  • And, for English state schools, make sure you make the right move by examining catchment area data and seeing which schools pupils come from and which schools they move on to. 

*We indicate on a school's page where data is available. We do not have data for schools outside of England.



Further reading

For those new to the process:

From Embryo To Eighteen - How To Survive The Education Highway

Coming Into The British School System From Abroad

Sussing Out Independent Schools And Horses For Courses

Choosing A School For A Talented Child


For those visiting schools:

School Open Evenings

Questions To Ask Staff When Visiting A School

Questions To Ask When Visiting A School - Academic Matters

Questions To Ask When Visiting A School - Financial Factors

Questions To Ask  When Visiting A School - Beyond the Classroom

Visiting A School - Questions For Pupils


For those contemplating the admissions process:

Independent School Admissions - It's Not Just Ability To Pay 

Independent School Admissions - Insider Information On Getting In!

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