Skip to main content

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 look at education planning for children of all ages and their parents aims to guide you through the schooling stages in both the independent and state sectors, and to tell you what to plan for and when.

Forethought to 5

'Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.' John Wilmot


Weigh up the pros and cons of September birthday babes; research shows their August counterparts can remain forever in their schooling shadow... although it’s different for those living in other areas – the Northern Ireland cut-off is end of June; in Scotland, February is the critical month.

Nursery class | The Good Schools GuideConception

Congratulations! As you get used to the idea of parenthood, we recommend you start thinking about schools, especially if you live in London, where a handful of private schools demand that children’s name are put down at birth - another reason to plan the month of arrival with care. Come July the books may be full and waiting lists closed. At the same time as purchasing Your Pregnancy Bible, consider investing in The Good Schools Guide (or subscribing online): that way you will know exactly which schools to phone on delivery day. Oh and If you have the option of a C-Section, make sure it's September 1 not August 31...

Birth - 2 years

Enjoy your precious times with your tot. Babes love nothing better than lots of adult/parental interaction; there's a good reason why increasing numbers of schools are introducing 'happiness programmes' into the curriculum. It is also time to think about nursery/pre-school education.

Two to 4 years

Time to consider the school you want your child to attend and the education programme you want them to follow. If you're looking for a good state school, check to see if you live close enough to your first choice (see the catchment maps on individual school pages, though these will vary from year to year) and that you fulfil the admissions criteria. If your preferred establishment is a faith school, make sure Sophia and Serge have been baptised and that you attend church, and don’t forget to make sure the priest notices.

We can’t overstress what a waste we think tuition is at this stage, but this has never stopped pushy parents from doing it anyway...

From 3 years of age – 2 in some cases - all children in Britain are entitled to a free nursery place (570 hours a year in England and 1,440 hours in Wales and Scotland). You don’t have to take a place but most people do. Settings vary; there are nurseries (including private and work-place nurseries) as well as play-groups and pre-school. Getting a place in the early years department of a local school does not guarantee a place in reception there, though. Many state primary schools have nursery classes for 3 year olds but all children join reception during the school year when they become 5 – most now starting at 4+ in September. For more information see Primary School Admissions - what is the process?

The majority of independent junior schools also offer places from 3 or 4 years, many with phased entry. Admission hurdles are usually easier for younger children and fees lighter too. Though bear in mind that not all independent schools will stick with youngsters who struggle later on.

Planning the primary school years

'Now I am 6 I'm clever as clever so I think I'll be 6 for ever and ever.' A A Milne

Five to 7 years

This is the time for learning to read, write and count, with plenty of time for play.

Some pre-preparatory schools use this time to focus on competitive entry to prep schools, but most simply ensure children are meeting their milestones.

Many children take up a musical instrument at this stage. If your son or daughter has a great voice you may decide to investigate a place at a choir school. Other youngsters take pleasure in performing, but don't worry if your child is a shrinking violet - not all stay that way...

Potential difficulties, such as dyspraxia and dyslexia, may also start to come to the fore... If your child shows any signs of this - or finds socialising with others traumatic, avoids eye-contact or gives you any other cause for concern - talk to their teachers. If there are problems, early intervention can make a huge difference.

Seven to 11/13 years

Learning begins in earnest now. Some children move from state infant to junior school at 7, though most stay at the same school from 4-11; some in the independent sector move from pre-preps to preps at 7 or 8. This is also the youngest age at which most schools will accept boarders.

Once your child reaches 8, you should start to think about secondary education, especially if you are considering a selective school – whether state or private. State primary schools don’t generally prepare their children for 11+ exams, so if you’re not confident about your ability to help, start looking round for a tutor. Many of the popular ones get booked up years in advance.

Schools will tell you it's a simple matter of taking verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests for which you cannot prepare; but the burgeoning of books, web-sites and tuition companies, promising 11+ success, show this advice is universally ignored. If you intend bringing in the professionals, see our section on Tutors, Tutoring, Revision.

If your child is at a private prep school, whether aiming to move on at 11+ or 13+, the school should have it all under control, with exam preparation covered and advice on the most suitable secondary options. But it’s not too early to start arranging visits. The Good Schools Guide lists entry criteria and, often, what heads are looking for.

If you are hoping for a faith school place and are not attending church weekly, you may already be too late – popular schools such as Grey Coat Hospital in London demand five years of weekly attendance for their faith places.

Perfect 10?

Ten is the age to register for most senior schools. Armed with your Good Schools Guide, you and your child’s school should by now have a fair idea not only of where your child's talents lie but also the type of environment that will best suit them.

Thoroughly research schools - open evenings are a great starting point and will give you a feel for a school. If you're interested in school performance (that's exams including drama!), the Good Schools Guide online provides detailed examination and value-added reports on virtually all English state secondary schools. These reports not only look at overall results but identify how good a school is for a child like yours - whether the brightest, above average, just below, struggling or with special educational needs.

If your child has a learning or other difficulty that is likely to require extra time or other exam concessions, commission a report by an educational psychologist. You’ll need to have your child re-examined within two years of any public exam and show an established pattern of extra time (or other concession) being granted and used in examinations.

Selective state secondaries all set 11+ exams, mostly in the September of year 6 (you generally have to register in the summer term of year 5, so don’t miss out). Selective independents generally set entrance exams for entry at 11+ and/or 13+. Growing numbers of boys’ schools in particular set pre-tests at 10 or 11 for 13+ entry.

Eleven - the age of change?

This is the time when most children in English state schools move on to secondary school. Some will move onto selective schools and a few state schools are allowed to pre-select a percentage according to their specialism. State grammar schools choose by ability. Some schools select through faith (or, as cynics might say, via 'the back door'). State boarding schools can select boarders according to boarding need and suitability to board (but the boarding element has to be paid for). Most non-selective state day schools give priority to siblings and those who live closest, with some operating ballots. A growing number of co-ed independents also have their main entry at 11.

Age 11 and moving on to senior school

'Adolescence is a period of rapid change. For example, between the ages of 12 and 17 parents age by as much as 20 years.' Al Bernstein

Eleven to 13 years

For many, these are the years dedicated to getting used to senior school, making new friends and learning new subjects. For a cosseted few, these are the final years of prep school life, with responsibility borne by many big fish in little ponds. Here, pupils continue to enjoy the discourse of Latin and Greek interspersed with the delightful distractions of tree-climbing, prefect duties, toast and muffins. The brightest will be challenged, stretched, pummelled and kneaded by the demands of scholarship work - the rest will plough through every past CE paper, perfecting examination technique to ensure they don't blot their copy. This is really where the prep in 'preparatory' shines through. Preparing pupils for senior school (traditionally the illustrious independent schools) is what these two years are all about.


For some a non-year: no exams, no sense of direction or purpose, no light at the end of the tunnel; for others this is a 'new year'. Youngsters who transfer schools at 13+ have a whole new regime to adapt to: new subjects to try; new teachers to test; new friendships to spawn. Yet this year is crucial; come summer most youngsters will have chosen their GCSE options, ready to embark on courses that will begin to shape their futures.

14 to 16: the age of examination

GCSEs, in all their various guises, get into full swing now.

If a change of school or schooling environment is in the offing, make sure you are ready to apply in the September/October before the year of entry. Sixteen is a popular time to transfer from school to college or from one school to another. In some areas state secondary schools do not have sixth forms so staying put may not be an option.

Those finessing the system may find 16 the ideal time to transfer from independent to state school education, but anyone hoping to cash in on the perceived bias towards offering pupils from state schools lower university offers should think again - it probably won't happen!

Despite what headteachers at girls' schools may tell you, 16 is a popular time for girls to swap single-sex education for co-ed. Many boys change schools at this stage too, whether from boarding to day or school to sixth form college. Don’t consider a change without consulting The Good Schools Guide.

Sixth former to student - when study gets serious

'Little children headache, big children heartache.' Italian proverb

Leaving school at 16 is a path taken by a shrinking minority - some leave for apprenticeships or study part-time but full-time education in sixth form is the norm. Advanced qualifications, whether vocational or A levels, IB, and all the various permutations of examinations, need to be meticulously mulled over. Gone are the days when it was simply about finding right school and ideal environment; you now need to ensure option choices are possible, viable and sensible. A wrong decision at this stage could have significant consequences for future degree and career choices.

If your child is aiming for Oxbridge, check the A level ‘facilitating’ subjects list. If a career in the media beckons, English will open more doors than the less taxing 'media studies', and economics will lead to greater entrepreneurial opportunities than business studies... If in doubt, check-out degree requirements and their compulsory and preferred subject choices, or speak to an adviser at The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants.

Girls pick up A level results | The Good Schools Guide

Sixth forms and sixth form colleges are the choice of most, but a few opt for crammers and tutorial colleges. As exams approach, revision courses gain in popularity and tuition is once again embarked on by those worried about making the grade or wanting help/advice on university entrance exams - especially LNAT, BMAT and similar selectors. This is also the ideal age to garner work-experience and ensure sufficient, relevant skills to pack a punch on the UCAS application.

Time for those so inclined to choose a university, find an apprenticeship, plan a gap year, possibly with an internship in the mix, or enter the world of work. Research and planning should be well under way so plans become a reality before school days come to an end. A number of companies offer paid internships; many more expect you not only to work for free but to keep yourself while you do it.

For those in the independent sector, school fees are about to give way to university costs, though you don’t have to pay back your student loan until you have graduated and are earning a certain amount (currently £27,295 - although different arrangements exist for new loans taken out in Scotland). Financial help may be available so check what universities are offering, but remember tuition fees are not the only expense: increasingly, luxurious halls of residence charge mouth-watering rents.

Eighteen: coming of age

Work, gap year, university or, for an unlucky few, resits.

Crammers offer students the chance to improve on their grades. But while there are some great institutions, be warned there are a few sharks too - so choose with care. 

For most this is an exciting time when they can truly spread their wings.

Do you want help from The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants?

Our expert education consultants can provide your family with one-to-one help on all of the issues raised in this article and many more. We regularly help parents understand the particulars of UK schools and assist them in mapping out potential educational pathways for their children.

If you would like to find out more about our services, visit the Education Consultants homepage or to speak directly with one of the team email [email protected] or call 0203 286 6824

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • The UK school system

    The first thing to know about the UK school system is that there isn’t one. Each of the four nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland - operates differently, with different curricula. However, there are similarities too, especially in the independent sector.   

  • Sixth form: EPQ (Extended Project Qualification)

    An EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) is a sixth-form qualification that involves students choosing a topic, carrying out research, creating a report (or ‘product’ and report) and delivering a presentation.

  • Choosing a school - tips 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.

  • Educating the gifted child

    Gifted children develop cognitively at a much faster rate than they develop physically, emotionally and socially, posing some interesting problems. For some, rapidly grasping what others cannot can lead to boredom, frustration and inappropriate behaviour. In all these cases there are challenges for parents, teachers and the child, who sees conforming to the norm as a major peer requirement.

  • Catchment area cheat

    School catchment area frenzy is gripping the nation as anxious parents lie, cheat, and even change their religion to get their offspring into the right school. And as the cost of living continues to soar and many independent school fees remain out of reach for the majority, there’s no sign of the trend slowing down, with hordes of parents willing to do almost anything to get their children into the state school of their choice.

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: