Skip to main content

Francis Holland, Sloane Square - climbing wallSelecting the perfect school for your child can be a bewildering process at the best of times. Finding a school in London, however, brings with it a raft of additional questions and concerns.

‘Despite the current economic climate, there is no sign of demand for school places in London slowing down,’ says Melanie Sanderson, managing editor of The Good Schools Guide. ‘The outstanding nature of the capital’s schools, from academic results to their co-curricular offerings – and not forgetting their globally recognized brand names – makes them magnetic to the global elite as well as local parents – and, for the best schools, there are always many more applicants than there are places’.

So if you’ve got your heart set on educating your child in London, what do you need to know and how can you navigate the process?

Types of school – state maintained

Firstly, ask yourself what kind of school you are looking for; deciding between state maintained or private is a good place to start. If you are hoping to find a high achieving state primary school, be prepared to pay through the nose for your property – and do your homework regarding catchments and other admissions criteria. In areas densely populated with young families and with outstanding schools on either side of the river, a catchment can be as close as 250 metres from the school gates and whether this is calculated ‘as the crow flies’ or via the most direct walking route can make all the difference. Visit your local authority website for specific entry criteria for your area.

The same applies to the best secondary schools, although of course there are more places. Semi-selective secondaries can be found in the boroughs of Barnet, Croydon and Wandsworth. These are broadly comprehensive in intake but offer a fixed percentage (between 15 and 25 per cent) of places to academic high achievers. There are fully selective grammar schools in the London boroughs of Barnet, Bexley, Bromley, Enfield, Kingston-on-Thames, Redbridge and Sutton. Some of these top national league tables and outperform many private schools so be prepared to start tutoring your child from year 5 for them to have a chance of success in the famously cut throat entrance exams. The same applies if you are considering using the state system for primary and moving to the private sector later; you can find more information on tackling this in our article Mixing and Matching State and Private Education in London.

Types of school – private

London is well populated with an array of excellent private schools to cater for all abilities. Pre-preps take children at 3, with most then preparing pupils for competitive entrance exams for prep schools at 7+ or 8+. Many – especially those catering for boys – start in either year 3 or year 4 (many have intakes into both these year groups) and go up to year 8 to prepare pupils for Common Entrance, providing a springboard either to London day schools with a main intake in year 9 or boarding schools around the country. Girls usually leave prep school at the end of year 6 to head to day school in year 7 and there is a growing trend for boys to do the same as more and more boys’ schools increase their year 7 intake to allow for a healthy mix of applicants from both the state and private sectors.

If your ambition is for your child to attend a top academic London day school, be sure to map out the route when they are still very tiny. The best feeder prep schools still require you to put your child’s name down at birth to be in with a chance of a place. Don’t be taken in, however, by the narrative that if you haven’t done this you have left it too late. This is definitely not the case for all schools and the transient nature of London means that occasional places do come up as families are relocated around the globe so it’s always worth joining a waiting list on the off chance.

‘Remember that every school wants you to think it’s full,’ says Melanie Sanderson, managing editor of The Good Schools Guide. If you have your heart set on somewhere but are a bit late to the party, build a friendly rapport with the admissions office and stay in touch. Make it known that their school is your first choice and that you would definitely accept a place should one be offered.’

Despite the abundance of private secondary schools, these too tend to be heavily oversubscribed. If your child is already in a prep school, the head teacher will give you clear guidance on where your son or daughter should aim for and – if they are doing their job well – will smooth their path to ensure entry. Notwithstanding that, those applying for private London day schools often sit exams for upwards of three, often five and sometimes more. Schools will often cite terrifying statistics of 5 or more applicants for every place. Rest assured that this is somewhat misleading as each of those applicants can only accept one place and there is much shuffling of acceptances between offers in February and the start of term in September. Do be realistic about your child’s abilities, though. The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants recommend that you have one ambitious target, one realistic option and a back-up in case your child underperforms on exam day.
So, bearing all this in mind, how best to set your child up for success and find the right school for them?

  • Know your timings and make a plan. Whether it’s state or private schooling you want, timing is everything, particularly in London where you may still need to put Daniel or Daniella’s name down at birth. Do your homework and map out a plan.

  • Location, location, location. Don’t assume that by living in the broad vicinity your child will be offered a place in that primary school. Check the distances of the homes of children offered places in previous years (this should be available on your Local Authority website) and make sure you are well inside the boundary for peace of mind.

  • Think about what really matters to you and your family. When your child starts school your whole family should be welcomed into the community; make sure the values and ethos of your chosen school are aligned with your own.

  • Visit. More than once, if possible. Talk to as many teachers and pupils as you can and ask them what they love about the school. If you’re moving to London from overseas or unable to visit in person for any reason, most schools have comprehensive virtual tours (one upside of the pandemic) and remember that all schools in The Good Schools Guides to London South and London North have been visited by our team of writers and, we think, are the next best thing to a visit.

  • Meet the head. So much more than just the person who takes assembly, the values of the head teacher will dictate the culture of the school.

  • SEN? If your child has special educational needs, be sure to meet the SENCo in person for reassurance that they have the skills and expertise to give them the appropriate support.

  • Plan your budget. Remember that school fees tend to increase every year, usually beyond the rate of inflation. If you plan to start in the state-maintained sector and move to private, remember to budget for the right kind of tutor to get your child up to scratch for entrance exams; it’s big (and expensive) business in London. If your heart is set on grammar school following an expensive prep school start, try to have funds in reserve to cover private school in case your child doesn’t make the grade.

  • Trust your instincts. Growing up in London is an exciting, but potentially overwhelming, experience. Choose a school where your child will be happy and supported; they are bound to thrive there.


London North and London South from The Good Schools Guide, available to order now.

London's best state and independent schools. New for spring 2021 and featuring impartial, candid school reviews of more than 340 of the capital's leading junior, senior, independent and state schools. Ideal for London parents searching for the best school for their child. Visit The Good Schools Guide shop to discover more about our latest edition and to order your copy.

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

    Coronavirus As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, The Good Schools Guide International offers the following guidance:  Determine the global situation and that of individual countries on government mandated school closures by accessing the UNESCO information on this link:   For updates on the medical situation, go to  the World Health Organisation website at  If you wish to contact one of our GSGI listed schools to discover their current status or any plans for alternate learning strategies, please go to our database to find email and phone numbers for each school If your company makes you brexit, The GSGI should be your first stop.…

  • Uni in the USA... and beyond

    The British guide to great universities from Harvard to Hong Kong. We tell you how to choose, how to apply, how to pay.

  • Grammar schools best value added

    We examined the value-added from KS2 to GCSE for 2017 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. Read more

  • 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

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

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