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A lively look at education planning for children of all ages and their parents. We guide you through the schooling stages from 0-18 in both the independent and state sectors, and tell you what to plan for and when.

Forethought to five

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


Consider the pros and cons of September birthday babes; research suggests their August counterparts remain forever in their schooling shadow...There is some hope for those living in other parts  - Northern Ireland cut-off is end of June and Scotland has February as the critical month.

Small babyConception

Congratulations! Not only is it time to get used to the idea of parenthood but, if you live in London, and are considering an independent school education, we recommend purchasing The Good Schools Guide (or subscribing online) at the same time as 'Your Pregnancy Bible': that way you will know exactly which schools to phone on delivery day. Sadly, we're not joking; a handful of schools literally demand name down at birth; another reason to plan the month of arrival with care. Come July the books may be full and waiting lists closed.

If you have the option of a 'C-Section' make sure it's September 1st not August 31st...

Birth - 2 years

Make the most of enjoying precious time 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 carefully consider nursery/pre-school education too.

For those who want to make the most of meeting others there's a wealth of activities offered; not just 'parents and tots' but everything from 'water babes' and 'music with mummy' to 'massage and sensory stimulation'. Of course if all this is a bit high-tech, you could enjoy simple pleasures: singing nursery rhymes to your child; reading stories; copious cuddles; trips to the shops; play-dough and painting. Don't get hung-up on Baby Einstein - research suggests that advanced offerings, in the main, don't advance the child. Start to investigate learning and play options.

2-4 years

Give thought to the school you want your child to attend and the education programme you wish them to follow. If you're looking for a good state school, check to see if you are likely to be close enough to your choice (see the catchment maps on our home page and 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 attend Sunday School. Volunteer for flower and coffee rotas at your local church and make sure people, particularly the priest, notice you doing so.

We cannot stress enough what a waste we think tuition is at this stage, but that has never stopped pushy parents from indulging...

From 3 years of age – 2 in some cases - all children in Britain are entitled to a free nursery place (15 hours a week in England and Wales, 475 hours a year in Scotland). There is no compulsion to take such a place but most now do. Settings vary; some parents opt for nurseries (including private and work-place nurseries) or play-groups, others for pre-school. Gaining a place in the early years department of a local school does not guarantee a place in reception there. 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. NB Make sure you know when to put in the application form – check your local authority website.

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.

The primary 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-7 years

A time for learning to read, write and count, with plenty of time for play.

A few pre-preparatory schools will be preparing children for competitive entry to prep schools, but most schools will simply ensure children are meeting milestones and put in extra help where they aren't.

Many 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.

Some young children start to show sporting or musical talent. Potential difficulties, such as dyspraxia and dyslexia, may also start to come to the fore...

Many youngsters take pleasure in performing, but don't worry if your child is a shrinking violet - not all stay that way... If your child 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-11/13 years

Learning begins in earnest. 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. If you are considering boarding, check out The Best Age To Go To Boarding School.

Eight the age to consider the elite...Once their child is 8, many parents begin to think about secondary education. If you are considering a selective school – whether state or private – you may need to start preparing. 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 most popular are booked up years in advance.

Schools may say 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, our section on Tutors, Tutoring, Revision is the ideal starting point.

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 which are likely to be the most suitable secondary options. However, 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 demand five years of weekly attendance for their faith places.

Perfect 10?

Ten is the perfect age to register for most senior schools.

The Good Schools Guide 21st bookBy this age you, armed with your Good Schools Guide, and your child’s school will have a fair idea not only of where your child's talents lie but also the type of environment that best suits them.

If you are to choose the right school for your child, make the most of all the opportunities to 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 (GSG) 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 or struggling - further separated for those 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 will 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 also generally set entrance exams for entry at 11+ and/or13+. Increasing numbers of boys’ schools in particular set pre-tests at 10 or 11 for 13+ entry.

Eleven - the age of change?

Eleven is the prime time for children in English state schools to move on to secondary school. Some will move on to selective schools - a few state schools are allowed to pre-select a percentage according to their specialism, the handful of state grammar schools choose by ability, a number of 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, though some operate ballots. Girls’ and an increasing number of co-ed independents also have their main entry at 11.

T'ween to teen - 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-13 years

For some, these years are spent getting used to senior school and a range of new friends and subjects. For others, these are the final years of prep school life, with responsibility borne by many big fish in little ponds. A cosseted few continue to enjoy the discourse of Latin and Greek interspersed with the delightful distractions of tree-climbing, prefect duties, toast and muffins. Boffs 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.


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'. Those 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.

14-16 the age of examination

GCSEs, in all their various guises, begin in earnest.

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 switching systems and 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 say, 16 is a popular time for girls to swap single-sex education for co-ed. Boys change schools at this stage too, whether from boarding to day or school to sixth form college. Whether a firm plan, a possibility or just an idea, don't change schools 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. Advanced qualifications, whether vocational or A levels, IB, Pre-U and all the various permutations of examinations, need to be carefully considered.

It's no longer a case of finding the right school and ideal environment; you need to factor in the perfect course and ensure option choices are possible, viable and sensible.

Linear, modular, vocational...a minefield to be inspected with care. A wrong decision at this stage can have significant consequences for future degree and career choices. If your child is aiming for Oxbridge, ensure at least two A level subjects are from the ‘facilitating’ subjects list.

If a career in the media beckons, English is likely to open more doors than the less taxing 'media studies', and economics will lead to greater entrepreneurial opportunities than business studies...

So subjects and subject combinations need to be carefully considered. If in doubt, check-out degree requirements and their compulsory and preferred subject choices, or speak to an advisor at The Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants.

Sixth forms and sixth form colleges are the choice of most, but a small minority 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 an ideal age to garner work-experience and ensure sufficient, relevant skills to pack-a-punch on the UCAS application. AS and A level courses begin in earnest - with many top universities now demanding one or more A* grades, the pressure is on. However, it is also true that with the cap on student numbers removed, some universities are now more likely to take those who haven’t quite made their offer.

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 can transform from ideas to 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 do not need to pay back your student loan until you have graduated and are earning a certain amount (currently £21,000). Financial help may be available – do check out what universities are offering. But bear in mind that 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.

A number of crammers offer students the chance to improve on their grades. There are some great institutions out there but a few sharks too - so choose with care. Many students opt to cram for one term and take resits the following June.

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


Related articles

  • Exams update

    The revised primary national curriculum started in 2014. English involves more focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar, including mastery of the subjunctive and semi-colons, plus the ability to spell 200 complex words such as controversy, environment, conscience and mischievous, by the end of key stage 2. It also include the use of formal spoken English, to be developed through, eg, poetry reciting.

  • Understanding the British school system

    Normal primary school admissions are at 3+ into the nursery or 4+ into the reception class. Some are divided into infant and junior schools, the latter starting at 7 years. Most secondary schools start at 11. For a normal application, you will need to apply – with a local address - by around mid-January for primary schools and the end of October of the year before entry for secondary schools.

  • What school league tables do not tell you

    League tables have caused a lot of agony and misunderstanding. As raw statistics, they are more or less meaningless. You will observe, for a start, that results swing wildly according to which newspaper you happen to look at. Among other things they don’t tell you: the pupils’ IQs, school policy, examinations taken or quality of education overall.

  • Questions to ask when visiting a school - academic matters

    Don't rely on league tables  - look beyond the headlines. Check-out our detailed analysis of results for English state schools to uncover how well a school does for a child like yours. Whether the most able, least able or Annie Average, what matters is how enthusiastic the school is about teaching and developing a child.

  • Extended Projects - stretching the able

    With a myriad of courses on offer, plus year on year improvements in pass-rates, it is seemingly harder than ever for savvy, innovative, intellectual students to shine and to take the right path. Developed by The Edexcel Examination Board in conjunction with teachers and academics, students undertaking an extended project qualification can earn up to 70 UCAS points, (just over half an A level).

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