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The British school system is made up of state-funded schools, which are free to attend, and independent schools (otherwise known as ‘private’ schools, some of which confusingly call themselves ‘public schools’), which are fee-paying.

State schools

Most families hope for a place in a good local state school. At primary level in particular, your child’s friends will almost all be local. You will soon feel part of the local community. You won’t spend hours in a car trying to navigate school run traffic or have to squeeze onto a rush hour tube or bus. In big cities, especially, many are used to young children arriving without fluent English and have systems in place to help. And of course, they are free.

You won’t at primary level get the specialist teachers that many private preps employ, nor probably the level of facilities, but the quality of teaching at a good state school shouldn’t be inferior. With a good comprehensive down the road, you are home and dry.

However, state primaries don’t prepare children for 11+ entrance exams, so if you are aiming at a selective secondary school you will probably have to rope in a tutor in year 5.


The tricky bit if you are moving. Many families have a rough idea where they want to live – depending on where the parents will be working, and how much they can pay for housing – but want to find a school before they commit to renting or buying a house. But you won’t be offered a state school place without proof of a local address.

Normal primary school admissions are at 3+ into the nursery or 4+ into the reception class (beware: getting a nursery place doesn’t usually guarantee a reception class place; you will probably have to reapply). 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, with some leeway for change of address up until mid-December. Apply later, and you become a late applicant, probably joining the queue behind all those who applied on time. (Note: selective grammar schools now set entrance tests in September, often with a closing date for applications in July

Most state schools, primary and secondary, give preference to those with an EHC plan naming the school, to looked after children, those with specific medical or social needs, then siblings. Whilst no state primary school selects by ability or aptitude (except the London Oratory Junior House, which tests all applicants for general academic ability and musical aptitude), faith schools mostly give preference to regular church-goers. Secular primary schools give most of their places to those who live closest (which can, in many areas, mean more-or-less spitting distance).

Secondary schools are a mish-mash of various forms of selection, whether by ability, location, faith or all three. Secular comprehensives give most of their places to those who live closest. Academically selective grammar schools (note: many do not have ‘grammar’ in their name) range from those that offer places to the highest scorers in their entrance tests, regardless of where they live, to those that offer places only to local children.

Some schools award a proportion of their places by ‘aptitude’; some by church attendance; some use ‘fair banding’ to get a spread of ability. St Marylebone School in London uses a combination of all three: 60 per cent of places are given to church-goers; it divides applicants into four ability bands, with equal offers to each band; and there are 12 ‘performing arts’ places. For most schools, distance is the tie-breaker. The local authority will usually tell you how far the cut-off was for the previous year.

Private schools

Playing cricketMany areas have a plethora of prep schools Most have small classes, specialist teachers and a relatively biddable intake – and rural ones often have acres of grounds. They will also prepare your child for entrance exams to secondary schools and advise on which are likely to be most suitable. Don’t assume the teaching is superior to a state school – both sectors include those who would be better off in a different profession. But a prep school is judged at least partly by its leavers’ destinations, so it will do its best to ensure your child moves on to a decent secondary school, even if it has to dampen down your expectations.

A stand-alone pre-prep, that goes from 3 or so to 7 or 8 years, may be a good bet if you are moving at short notice. Some of the children who join at 3 may move on at 4 or 5, so places do come up. The disadvantage is that they are, inevitably, obliged to spend quite a part of the upper years preparing children for 7+/8+ entrance exams.

Independent secondaries range from the ferociously selective power-houses such as Westminster and St Paul’s to those that provide a gentle haven from hothousing or social integration – with admissions policies to match. A glance at the league tables will give a clue as to the degree of selection they operate.


Prep schools don’t usually care where you live, as long as you can pay the fees. Many London preps in particular give the illusion, at least, that if you don’t sign your child up at birth you are too late. Some selective schools do close their waiting lists early, or have specific dates for registering; others operate on a first-come-first-served basis and do fill up on paper at least. But it is always worth a phone call; last-minute places come up at the most sought-after schools and many country preps welcome applicants at any stage.

The thought of putting your 3 or 4 year old through a selection session or two may seem round the bend. Indeed, all-through schools (those with a senior school attached) that select this young rarely guarantee that a place at 4 will see you through into the senior school. Even those selected at 7 or 8 are sometimes weeded out at 11 or 13.

However, your child may have to go through it. At 3, they may be asked to draw a picture, listen to a story and answer questions, cut out a circle, do a jigsaw, build a tower, match dominoes. Many schools send them out to play together, no doubt with an eye out to see who bites whom. Selection at this age is not an exact science, and certainly does not mean your child is doomed to failure because he didn’t get a place at 3.

At 7, 8 and 11, most schools set maths and English exams, perhaps combined with reasoning tests. Many have previous papers on their websites. They will generally also interview likely candidates and ask their previous school for a report, and may include some sort of group activity.

Entry at 13 gets more complicated, with increasing numbers of schools setting pre-tests (generally maths, English and reasoning) in year 6 or 7. Those selected will usually need to confirm their places by doing well in the common entrance exam (in a range of subjects) in year 8. This system is tricky to navigate if you are arriving with a child already in year 7 or 8, and you may need to track down one of the (dwindling number of) schools that don’t use the pre-test system.

Many pupils change schools in the sixth form – whether from single sex to co-ed, boarding to day, state to private or vice versa. Some single sex schools admit pupils of the opposite gender into the sixth form. Both state and private schools almost always have some sort of entrance requirements at this point, generally involving GCSE grades, interviews and perhaps entrance exams.

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