How to choose a good school in LondonLondon is a huge, diverse and fast-moving city. Its occupants live busy lives and demand high standards, not least from the educational establishments they choose for their children. London is home to some of the most academic state and private schools in the country but excellent sport, art, drama and music are often found in the capital's schools too. Finding the perfect school for your child can be a bewildering process at the best of times but London brings with it added choice, not to mention a raft of additional questions and concerns.
'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?
Choosing a London state school for your child
London's state primary schools routinely average better SATs scores than those in the rest of England; the same goes for GCSEs and A levels in state secondary schools and sixth forms. If you know that you are looking for state maintained rather than a private school, London is certainly is a good place to be. The other side of the coin is that living in an area which would give you access to the best of these school comes at a cost.
Living near a good school in London
Catchment areas, according to their true definition, aren't actually found in much of London. However, the distance you live from the school gates can be a deciding factor when it comes to a successful application. In areas with outstanding schools and densely populated by young families, you may need to live as close as 250 metres from the school gates to secure a primary place. The local authority website will publish a lot of information regarding school admissions. Be sure to check admissions policies for schools you like (namely the oversubscription criteria and how the home-to-school gates distance is usually calculated - ‘as the crow flies’ is most common but occasionally using a walking route) and seek out information relating to the furthest distance a successful applicant was living from the school gates in previous years. This figure will provide a kind of de facto catchment area and is something you shoud factor into your plans. If you know that for a particular school, recent years have seen successful applicants living no further than 0.5km from the school gates and yet you live 0.8km away, pinning your hopes on an application to that school may well be a gamble not worth taking.
Not surprisingly, over the years the areas in the immediate vicinity of high achieving state primary schools have attracted ambitious parents, further improving standards at the school and forcing the house prices up, which in turn means that mainly well-off middle class families will be in a position to apply for places at that school in the future...and so on. It because of this cycle that you can find two primary schools within 500 metres of each other; one may be entirely dominated by middle class, professional families while the other far more diverse and representative of the wider locale. Do your homework regarding admissions criteria and locations but be prepared to pay through the nose for your property.
The same is true of London's best secondary schools, although of course they are bigger and don't admit pupils from such small, localised areas. 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 10 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, and a few outer boroughs may be close enough to grammars just outside London to make a successful application a possibility. Some of these top the 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.
The other critical factor in London state schools is one of faith. Unlike other parts of the country, practically all faith schools in London admit according to a faith-based criteria. The vast majority of these faith schools are Roman Catholic and Church of England, and they admit at least 50% of pupils according to their parents attendance at church. In many cases, particularly RC schools, 100% of pupils come from religiously observant families. Faith schools often get good grades - or in the case of faith primaries, they can ease passage into the faith secondary schools which get good grades - and so their places are in great demand. The result of this is packed Sunday services at the schools' associated churches and a rush to get children baptised. There is a supplementary form for faith school applications and often a letter from the priest (or equivalent) is requested.
Choosing a London private school for your child
Nowhere in the UK has as many private schools as London. There is a great array to cater for all abilities and interests. Pre-preps with nurseries take children at 3 (or even younger sometimes), 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/junior 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.
Many London private schools still operate on single-sex basis although it is becoming slightly less common. In the last two decades, a number of all-boys' schools have become partially or fully co-ed (see Highgate, Latymer Upper, UCS) and it is a trend that is likely to continue - Westminster School plans to be fully mixed by 2030. There are still plenty of single-sex schools (more all girls' schools than all boys') although isolating pupils from the opposite sex is no longer the done thing and often collaborate with sister/brother schools for sporting, music and drama events.
If your ambition is for your child to attend a top academic London day school, be sure to give thought to the route when they are still very tiny. Some leading 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.’
Private schools in London are in great demand
Despite the abundance of private secondary schools, these, like the best state schools, 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 London private schools often sit exams for upwards of three, sometimes five or more. Schools will 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?
How to choose a good school in London
- 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 at your preferred 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. If you're targeting a school which is too far to walk to, imagine the school run through London's clogged roads or how your child might use public transport to get to school.
- 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. You know your child better than anyone so choose a school where they will be happy and supported; they are bound to thrive there.
Photo credit: Newton Prep, Battersea
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