Skip to main content

Smiling girl with paint on her hands | The Good Schools Guide

Alternative schools provide an option for parents who do not want their children to be educated in mainstream schools. They typically suit families who consider traditional schooling a straightjacket and children who may struggle in more traditional settings.

What is an alternative school?

Alternative schools – sometimes known as progressive schools - offer their own individual, usually informal, approaches to education. There are many differing approaches, some close to mainstream education, others a complete departure. They range from King Alfred’s School in north London - where there are no school exams below year 10, no uniform and students are on first name terms with staff, but follow the normal curriculum – to Summerhill, in Suffolk, where lessons are entirely optional. 

Some alternative schools, such as Steiner Schools and Brockwood Park, have a strong spiritual ethos, whilst others, such as Sands in Devon, are based on a democratic premise. Most will offer GCSE and A level teaching, not necessarily to the same year groups as in conventional schools, and often in a relatively limited range of subjects, but the school journey towards this point is likely to be very different.

Why do we have alternative schools?

There are no guidebooks to bringing up children and when it comes to schooling, there is nothing more likely to cause sleepless nights. So much emphasis is put on education that as a parent you feel you have to get it right…but how do you find the best fit for your child?

With ever-increasing emphasis on exam results, it takes a brave parent to step off the mainstream carousel of regular homework, testing and fact cramming. If you are the sort of parent who has already, in your mind’s eye, seen your child off to Oxbridge, alternative schooling probably isn’t for you. One ‘alternative’ parent who believed mainstream education to be somewhere children are ‘criticised and their self-esteem damaged…like workers in a factory’, told us they had found ‘a refuge’ in alternative schooling.

How are alternative schools different?

There is no one-size-fits-all, but alternative schools do tend to have some characteristics in common:

  • Size – they tend to be relatively small, with generous pupil:teacher ratios. In some, such as Steiner schools, teachers stay with the same class for several years to build up strong relationships.
  • Non-authoritarian – some have head teachers, some don’t, but pupils (and sometimes parents) are generally involved in decision making, with opportunities for everyone to feel their views are valued.
  • Less structured curriculum – the learning journey tends to be less about passing exams and more about the process of learning through experience, problem solving and teamwork.

Many state and independent schools have embraced alternative education without going the full hog. From forest schools to student councils, playful learning to break-out curriculum days, there is no doubt that mainstream schools are less traditional than they once were. However, while they may dip into other ways of educating, their main focus remains on teaching an exam-focussed, timetabled curriculum.

What are the possible downsides alternative education?

Pace – We hear some complaints that the whole class can, at times, be taught at the pace of the slowest pupil, resulting in bored bright ones.

Teachers - Skills of the teacher used to be a bit of a lottery, less so nowadays with tighter appraisals and continuous training. However, lack of rapport can be a problem if the teacher stays with the same class for years.

Structure - The apparent lack of structure can be a problem for some students and for parents.

Academics – So can the lack of rigour. ‘I would like them to insist a bit more in academic matters’ and ‘I’m not sure [my son] is applying himself properly…I think he is challenged, but only if he is interested’ are among parents comments we’ve heard. However, ‘My daughter may have got better exam marks at a different school but she got the grades she needed for the next step she was planning to take which is what mattered.’

Home education

Steiner-Waldorf schools

Montessori schools

Forest schools

The 'alternative' alternatives

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Special educational needs introduction

    Need help? Perhaps you suspect your child has some learning difficulty and you would like advice on what you should do. Or perhaps it is becoming clear that your child's current school is not working for him or her, and you need help to find a mainstream school which has better SEN provision, or to find a special school which will best cater for your child's area of need. Our SEN consultancy team advises on both special schools, and the mainstream schools with good SEN support, from reception through to the specialist colleges for 19+. Special Educational Needs Index

  • The Good Schools Guide International

    Find top international, British, IB and American schools in over 40 countries. The Good Schools Guide International publishes impartial and forthright reviews of international schools across the world.

  • Grammar schools best value added

    We examined the value-added from KS2 to GCSE for 2022 to see which state selective grammar schools added the most value to their offspring. A note of caution - the more highly selective a grammar school, the less scope there will be to add value.

  • Grammar schools in the UK

    Grammar schools are state-funded, academically selective senior schools. The education a child receives at grammar school is paid for by the state unlike at private schools which provide education for a fee. There are currently around 163 located in 36 English local authorities, with around 167,000 pupils between them. Northern Ireland has a further 67 grammar schools, but there are none in Wales or Scotland. A word of caution: there are private schools that have the word 'grammar' in their name but this is purely for historical reasons. 

  • Music, drama and dance at Performing Arts schools

    At specialist music, dance or performing arts schools, the arts aren't optional extras. They’re intrinsic to the school curriculum. Students are expected to fit in high level training and hours of practice alongside a full academic provision. It's a lot to ask any child to take on, but for those with exceptional performing ability this kind of education can be transformative.

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

☑ 30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
☑ Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
☑ Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,200 schools
☑ Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

Buy Now

GSG Blog >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.


Our most recent newsletter: