Private schools - paying for the privilege

Article published 2nd June 2008


 Private schools

It used to be the case that only the upper crust and the very wealthy sent their children to private schools. Nowadays more than half the children entering the private sector have parents who are first time buyers.


What can they expect? 


The Independent school journey


NB This article offers an overview of independent schooling. For more in-depth information on many of the elements covered here, please see the recommended, 'further reading' list provided at the end of this article. 

Private Schools (generally known as Independent Schools because of their freedom to operate outside of government regulations) are favoured by many parents, not just because of their social standing and 'old-boy' network but because, on the whole, their academic standards tend to be better than state schools and extra-curricular activities more plentiful and varied.

Public Schools - Private Schools - Independent Schools - Fee-paying Schools

The terms are, for the most part, used interchangeably. In the UK, Public Schools is a somewhat archaic term for the oldest and greatest of the boys' private secondary schools: Eton, Winchester, Harrow without doubt, then  Rugby, Radley, Marlborough, ShrewsburyCharterhouse etc in distinctly arguable order. An essentially snobbish and sexist term that Lord Peter Wimsey wrestles amusingly with in Murder must Advertise. Public School is gradually being abandoned in favour of 'Independent School'. The original public schools were so named because they were open to members of the public (who could afford the fees) rather than private schools, whose membership was closed. 

Finance and fees

Fees at independent schools vary. Old, established boarding schools will charge more than £30,000 per year. However, small day schools, for younger children, may charge only a couple of thousand per term.  

When enquiring about fees ask what is included and what is extra. Extras can add a considerable chunk to the bill. If you have more than one child you may qualify for a sibling discount.  Even if no discount is advertise, a school may be willing to do a deal - or offer a bursary. If you have a gifted, talented or especially able child - enquire about scholarships. Most scholarships are worth very little in monetary terms but many schools are happy to top up with a bursary for those in financial need. 

Ages and stages

Those educated wholly in the private sector will typically attend nursery between the ages of 0 and 4; pre-prep from 4 to 8 and prep school from age 8 to 11 (or 13); followed by senior school through to age 18. 


Selection - a two-way process

independent schooling

Most independent senior schools use the Common Entrance exam to assess whether the proposed girl (usually at age 11) or boy/co-ed ( at age 13) will be able to meet the academic requirements of the institution.

Common entrance is not really a pass/fail exam - a good deal of fine tuning takes place to ensure that children only sit CE for schools where the pass mark is closely aligned to the mark the child is likely to get (some schools require 55% at CE others as high as 70%). As a result some oversubscribed schools use pre-testing to try to ensure those who sit common entrance for their school will pass.

It is not just for the school to be selective though – choosing the right private school for your child is of paramount importance, and should be a subjective judgement.  

Consider the head - is s/he a good leader? What do staff, pupils and other parents think of the head - how are they perceived within the local community?

What is the atmosphere and environment like, green and pleasant or urban and edgy? Is the school looked after and cared for - is there plenty of space? If not - does it matter? Do the children seem well cared for and purposeful, do they look you in the eye?

What are the academic expectations and can you see your child fitting in? Look at the end product - is that you want of your child?  Do they stretch the brightest, help those who struggle? How? Find out how many leave before the end point and why? 

Is there plenty going on outside of the classroom? Are activities, varied and inclusive? What about trips and tours? Sports, music, dance, drama, hobbies?

What is the pastoral care like, how does it work, what happens when things go wrong? Ask for examples - are the answers what you would hope for? 

Who does the school suit? What type of child fits in, who might struggle? 

Does the school feel right? If it doesn't it probably isn't. If you are unsure, visit on a different day and at a different time. Choosing a school for your child is one of the most important decisions you will ever make  - a good school should set your child in good stead, selecting the wrong one can leave you picking-up the pieces well beyond the end of their school years.  Investing time/money to make sure all is well, before you sign on the dotted, will reap dividends later. 

Finding your ideal school

We have an extensive search facility to help you locate schools but offer far more besides. Subscriber features include exams data and performance information plus comparison tools (covering English state and English independent senior schools) and our inimitable Good Schools Guide reviews. 


Good Schools Guide school reviews


The Good Schools Guide and the Good Schools Guide (GSG) online offer a consummate and in-depth analysis of 900 of the best private schools in the UK, with (on this website but not in the printed guide) as much information as we can gather on every UK private school including for many, detailed analysis of examination performances at A level and GCSE and the value the school adds.

This website features a directory of 30,000+ schools. We review 1200+. We select the schools we want to review and welcome recommendations from parents and others about good schools we should consider. Just because a school isn't reviewed it does not mean it isn't a good school. 

  • No school can pay to be selected for review by us
  • We choose the schools we wish to review
  • We visit and independently review the schools we choose

We don't review all schools but for those we do the information is invaluable.  The Good Schools Guide reviews are written for parents by parents with educational expertise. We pay particular attention to such matters as what kind of child each school suits, and what its pupils and parents are like. We answer the questions that the prospectuses don't broach and highlight the strengths and weaknesses that facts can't address - read the reviews, sense the atmosphere...


'Unique among the many guides available, it set out to give frank answers to the questions every parent asks. It told the truth.' The Daily Telegraph


Discover all the inside information including: 

  • What the head is really like.
  • How to get in - and where pupils go on to when they leave.
  • What's really on offer; both in and out of the classroom.
  • The facilities, frippery and finery to be found - or not!
  • The atmosphere - who will the school REALLY suit?
  • The funding you'll need and the financial health of the school.
  • Our opinion - what parents think, what we've uncovered...

You can read the indispensable reviews in the printed guide or subscribe online. 


Subscribe to the Good Schools Guide. Only £9.99 for one month.

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

We have a whole series of articles and advice to help you every step of the way; whether tentatively embarking on choosing a school, or part way through the school choice process.

From Embryo To Eighteen - How To Survive The Education Highway

Coming Into The British School System From Abroad

Sussing Out An Independent School and Horses For Courses

Independent Schools Reviewed By The Good Schools Guide

Independent V State School Education


School types

Pre-Preparatory Schools

Preparatory Schools

Independent Schools

Boarding At A UK School

How To Choose A UK Boarding School


Choosing and visiting schools

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

Questions To Ask Pupils When Visiting A School 

Choosing A School For A Talented Child


Admissions & exam preparation

Tutors - Things To Consider 

Common Entrance CE

Independent School Admissions - Insider Information On Getting In!

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


Finance and fees

Scholarships And Bursaries

School Fees - Extras

Extras List

Fee Paying Schools - Bargain Hunting

Mix And Match State And Private Education


We also offer a comprehensive consultancy service for those who require personal assistance with finding a school for their child. 

You can find out more about our Advice Services here: Consultancy Services or tel  0203 286 6824

If you cannot find the information you require - or have a general enquiry, please contact us.


Subscribe for full access

Register for our Newsletter...

Go >

...and receive our FREE expert guide to Tutors!