Skip to main content

As proud parents, we all know our children are unique. They're smarter than anyone else's, funnier, certainly more attractive, better behaved and above all bursting with the kind of talent that would leave Daniel Radcliffe or Charlotte Church standing. And sometimes, just sometimes, parental pride is justified.

Many Harry Styles and Billie Piper wannabes grow up and grow out of it, but what if there's true talent lurking behind that precocious façade and your child continues to show real promise? Whether your child excels in music, dance or acting (or even all three), their talent needs careful nurturing and professional support. But do they need to attend a specialist school?

Does your child really need a specialist school?

The advice from Drama UK (which accredits a number of full-time vocational courses in acting and stage management at higher education level) is - keep your head. Don't let those stars in your youngster's eyes blinker you to the wider educational picture.

They recommend that young people who want to earn their living in the theatre stay at school and complete their education. Then, at age 17 years, apply for a place on a full-time course in a drama school, preferably one offering courses accredited by Drama UK. Graduates of accredited courses are eligible for full Equity membership

For most aspiring performers a sound academic education in a mainstream school is the best grounding, but for those few whose talents are exceptional, specialist schools really can offer the best of both worlds. While acting does not depend on early specialism, for those aiming at a classical dance or musical career professional early training is vital. The rich mix of artistic and solid academic training offered by specialist schools, not to mention an environment where prodigious talent is the norm, not the exception, can be an absolute winner.

Choosing a school for a talented child

If you decide - usually with encouragement from teachers or other educational experts - that your child needs a specialised environment to realise their full artistic potential, what does that mean?

At specialist schools the arts aren't optional extras, they make up a sizeable slice of the curriculum. It means harmonising the three Rs with a full musical programme, creating a pas de deux of ballet and biology, learning lines as well as chemical formulae. It's a lot to ask anyone to take on - let alone an eight-year-old. But this kind of education can, and undoubtedly does, work.

Choosing the right school is a hard task for all parents. Add to that the pressure of making possible life-moulding decisions for your children in the case of specialist music, dance or stage schools and the high stakes of making such a choice can feel overwhelming.

We can help

Good Schools Guide Education Consultants  has experts in specialist arts schools and in scholarships and bursaries. We can work one-to-one with you to find the right school for your talented child. Contact us: [email protected] or 0203 286 6824.

We review specialist schools. Our experts have visited and reviewed many excellent specialist stage, dance and music schools. Read some examples here:

Let's take the Wells Cathedral School in Somerset. It is one of the five specialist music schools in the country funded by the Government's Dance, Ballet and Music Scheme. Less hard-core and tunnel-visioned than other music schools, its 530 senior school pupils include 40 choristers who rehearse five mornings a week before school as well as alternate Friday afternoons, plus singing in services. Its music is, of course, fabulous, but it is the only senior music school that allows its musicians to play in school games teams - indeed the only senior music school that has games teams. It is no slouch on the academic front either, with around half of GCSEs and A levels graded A*/A.

Then there's the Yehudi Menuhin School in Cobham, Surrey. With just 75 boys and girls aged 8 to 18, size is an obvious difference. But all the pupils here – as opposed to around a third at Wells Cathedral – are seriously dedicated to music, and half of the academic day is taken up by it, plus practice sessions. Virtually all go on to conservatoires. Whilst Wells Cathedral feels like a ‘normal’ school, and your child will not be out of place if they later decide that physics, not music, is their passion, Menuhin’s limited numbers and narrow focus put it firmly in a class of its own.

Pupils at the Arts Educational School in London specialise in either dance or drama alongside normal academic subjects, It is a haven for those aiming at a stage career, and nearly all sixth formers go on to dance or drama college, but some 40 per cent have discovered by GCSE time that the performing life is not for them and head elsewhere for sixth form.

Competition for specialist school places

Competition for places at specialist schools is phenomenal and schools will obviously be looking for children with exceptional ability and potential. The selection process is likely to include entrance exams, auditions and interviews. Just to put this in context, many candidates for music scholarships at non-specialist independent schools will already have achieved Grade 6 or above in two instruments.

The reality of entry procedures

Read what our reviewers say about entry procedures at two specialist schools.

Tring Park School for the Performing Arts - described by composer Howard Goodall as 'unique' and uncompromising 'with regard to high standards' –has strict conditions of entry. Hopeful pupils, aged 13 or under, must take a piece of art work to an all-day audition. During the morning they will take part in a dance class, recite a poem, sing a song and play an instrument, where appropriate. The afternoon is devoted to academic matters with tests in maths and English. More will be asked of older students wanting admission to the senior school. But the school is quick to point out:

'This is not a 'passing and failing exercise' but an attempt to build up a picture of you and therefore for us to decide whether Tring Park is the school for you! (And for you to decide whether you like us!)'

Elmhurst School for Dance and Performing Arts counts Jenny Agutter, Helen Baxendale, Sarah Brightman, Fiona Fullerton and Hayley and Juliet Mills amongst its old girls. No shortage of talent in what claims to be probably the oldest vocational dance school in the country. Excellence in dance tops this school's list of goals, followed by high quality broad-based academic education and a happy, healthy, well-motivated community both at work and play. Girls and boys are accepted between the ages of 11 and 13, and again at 16. And its reputation, not surprisingly, attracts teenagers from all over the world. As we say, ‘Something about the absolute dedication to a highly disciplined vocation infuses the whole place.’ But alongside this is the possibility of heartache if your teenager is advised at 14 or 16 that he or she is not going to make the grade and needs to move elsewhere – a common factor of dance schools.

Help with fees

Apart from the BRIT School in Croydon, virtually all specialist performing arts schools are fee-paying. Boarding is often favoured - if not compulsory - which inevitably bumps the annual fees well up into the five-figure range. But fear not, bursaries and scholarships are always on offer and the Government also funds places at some specialist schools up and down the country.

The music and dance scheme. This provides means-tested aided places for over 700 boys and girls with outstanding talent in music or ballet. Children aged 8 and over (or 11 in the case of dance schools) can be considered for fund aid and, if successful, will receive specialist training alongside a good academic education without breaking the bank.

The scheme covers eight specialist independent schools in England - four music and four dance. They are:

All but three (Hammond, which we do not yet have enough reports on, plus Chetham's and The Royal Ballet School) are reviewed by The Good Schools Guide. It is not unusual to find that virtually all pupils are fund-aided. So potentially high costs need not be a deterrent.

The Royal Ballet School is at pains to point out:

'No potential pupil or student should be discouraged by lack of financial means from making application to the School.'

We can help

Good Schools Guide Education Consultants has experts in specialist arts schools and in scholarships and bursaries. We can work one-to-one with you to find the right school for your talented child. Contact us: [email protected] or 0203 286 6824.

Choir schools

Choir schools are schools attached to cathedrals, churches and college chapels. Most are as ancient as the religious buildings they serve since they were founded to educate the boy choristers who sang (several times a day, all year) at services. There are 44 choir schools in the UK although only just over 1,000 of the 15,000 pupils are choristers. Many, but not all, are now open to both boys and girls.

Choir schools are liberally distributed across Britain - from Cardiff to Cambridge, Edinburgh to Ely - and many have excellent reputations for both academic greatness and all-round musical excellence. Pilgrims' School in Winchester, for example, sends around half its leavers to Winchester College, many with music scholarships.

A specialist musical education for free? The Choir Schools' Association (CSA) website trumpets, 'If you know a child who enjoys singing we have news for you. 'He or she just might qualify for one of the most exciting education bargains currently available to 7-13 year olds.' It goes on:

'There is every chance fees can be found for the child who sings well, who really wants to be a chorister and whose parents genuinely cannot find the money.'

Schools offer tempting discounts. Some chorister places are completely free while others are partly funded by chapel or cathedral foundations or through the CSA's own chorister fund.

A huge commitment, but worth it? Choir schools do their utmost to ensure that choristers enjoy the same school experience as their peers but the reality is that being a chorister is incredibly hard work. However excellent the musical education, however generous the fee discount, it’s a high price to pay if your child buckles under the strain of lengthy rehearsals and interrupted holidays (peak demand for choristers is at Christmas and Easter).

Arts provision in mainstream state schools

If the whole concept of specialist schooling leaves you feeling slightly overwhelmed, it's worth remembering that there's a great deal of excellence to be found in mainstream education. Though large parts of the state system are an artistic desert, there are oases of extraordinary achievement despite cuts in Government funding.

All the school reviews on our website contain information about the provision of music, dance and drama.

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Choosing a school - thoughts for parents

    What do you want for your child? State school or fee-paying? Day or boarding school? Single sex or co-education? It helps to have a game plan, even if you change it at a later date. What do you want from the school? Undoubtedly you want to find a great school, one that's ideal for your child, with great teaching and possibly good facilities to match.

  • State boarding schools

    If you think your child would benefit from a boarding school education, but are put off by the high fees and consequent limited social mix of a typical independent boarding school, you may find that a state boarding school is the answer. Read more... State grammar schools Counties such as Kent or Buckinghamshire are ‘selective authorities’ and most families will have at least one grammar school close to where they live. Elsewhere, for example in Reading or Kingston-on-Thames, there are just one or two grammar schools and competition for places at these is ferocious. Grammar schools are located in 36…

  • Catchment area cheat

    Pressure for places in the UK’s best state schools is intensifying with state grammar schools leading the way. Popular schools see upwards of 10 applicants for every place. In 2014, almost half of children in some areas have been rejected from their preferred secondary school. Catchment areas are already shrinking as parents who had planned on private schooling join the battle for places in the best state schools.

  • Visiting a school: what should you look for at an open day?

    They may not truly reflect day-to-day life at a school (this will be school at its best) but they'll give you a flavour of what's happening and allow you to soak up the atmosphere. They are your chance to have the upper hand, get a feel for the school and chat with pupils and staff. Do visit more than one school: it’s useful to compare and contrast.

  • When to put your child’s name down for a school

    A handful of schools literally demand that you apply for a place as soon as your child is born, which means it’s never too early to start planning your child’s education. In fact, it’s a process that can start even before you’ve conceived – and that goes for all parents, wherever they want their offspring to go to school. From embryo to 18, read on to find out how to survive the education highway. Our lively look at education planning for children of all ages and their parents aims to guide you through the schooling stages in both the independent…

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 1,000 schools
 Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

The Good Schools Guide subscription

GSG Blog >    In the news >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

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

The bigger picture



For a limited time get one month's Good Schools Guide subscription free with any purchase of The Good Schools Guide to Boarding Schools.