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15 May 2023

Choosing to pay for independent school all the way through, from finger painting to Freshers’ Week, will stretch even the most well-heeled budgets. This is particularly the case in London where higher salaries soon get consumed by bigger living costs, weightier mortgages and, of course, more expensive school fees. You’ll be lucky to get change from £250,000 – and that’s in today’s money; average annual London day school fees in 2022 were nearly £19,000 and the figure goes up every year, generally at a rate outstripping inflation. Taking uniform, trips, transport and other extras into account, an exclusively private education is moving beyond the reach of many London families on top of their already hefty outgoings, but is it feasible to mix and match state and private?

It’s undoubtedly true that school places in London are at a premium at every level, but in a transient city, no decision is final and if ever something isn’t working out for your child, it’s almost always possible to change.

Starting off at a London state primary.

'State ‘til eight' is a popular option in London. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a borough with good state primaries - most London primaries are objectively good - and you had the foresight to buy (or rent) a house within a stone’s throw, it could be considered foolish not to take advantage of a free education. Your child’s friends will most likely also be their neighbours and a short stroll to school is a great way to start the day. If your child is either extremely able (or conversely has learning difficulties or an EHCP), then this may well be a good option for your child and your bank balance will thank you for it too. Children in the middle of the academic spectrum may find that what they need to progress at the right rate is harder to come by at a busy primary school and a parent with a ‘just-getting-by’ child may decide it’s worth pinching pennies for the extra attention that a private school can provide.

A prep school’s benchmark of success is its leavers’ destination schools list, and as very few set KS2 SATs, making a comparison with the state sector can be tricky. Many London parents choose to use the state system for the early years, moving their child to a prep in years 3 or 4 to help them prepare for competitive entry at 11+ or 13+. Those linked to a top secondary school such as Westminster Under, St Paul’s Juniors, Highgate Junior or North London Collegiate Junior are considered by some to be a ‘golden ticket’ as they know better than anyone how to prepare for entrance to the senior school. These senior schools are among the most academic in the country so naturally, this makes entry extremely competitive. Don’t fear though - there are many other preps which have good track records at placing pupils at these secondaries – as well as some which may be less hifalutin but still offer excellent provision. Do register well in advance as lists can become full very fast.

Getting a place at London's private senior schools 

The more academic private schools in London, mindful of A level league tables, are keen to attract the brightest candidates so emphasis is on raw IQ, generally gauged by verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests as well as maths and English.

The high-flying City of London School, for example - which has always had a broad intake in terms of means and social class - takes half of its 11+ entrants from the state sector. Even academically and socially elite schools such as Westminster and St Paul’s are eager to attract the ablest 11-year-olds from the state sector into their own or allied prep schools. The schools which make up The Girls' Day School Trust, some of which are among the capital's best academic performers, routinely recruit a significant proportion of their senior school pupils from the state sector, despite having their own junior/prep departments.

IQ alone, however, is not the only factor and raw scores can be improved considerably with practice and careful preparation. Parents keen to make the transition at this point may wish to hire a tutor from the middle of year 5 (year 6 is too late!) to solidify their child’s literacy and numeracy and prepare them for the unfamiliar and idiosyncratic verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests. Tuition for 11+ assessments (for both private and grammar school entry) is rampant in London and the more experienced tutors are often booked up years in advance.

If you have your eyes on one of London’s 19 fiercely academic grammars such as Queen Elizabeth’s School, Barnet, Nonsuch High School for Girls or Henrietta Barnett, paying for a prep may help prepare them for the cut-throat entrance exams. However, if you feel your child doesn’t have the raw material to compete at this level, be prepared to go private all the way. 

Moving to a London state school for 6th form

London is home to an impressive set of state 6th forms. Whether it is a grammar or comprehensive which has a fresh, academically-selective intake after GCSEs (such as Tiffin School or Brampton Manor respectively) or a standalone 6th form (like Harris Westminster and London Academy of Excellence), Londoners are these days able to access highly academic and ambitious 6th form education and it can be tempting for parents with dwindling cash reserves and children at private school. Notwithstanding contextualised offers - where applicants from low-income backgrounds or worse-performing schools are offered places with lower conditional grades - statistics show that the private school-educated are disproportionately represented at Oxbridge, suggesting that public school polish can tip the balance at interviews. At the same time, The Daily Telegraph reports that children who transfer from a private school to a state 6th form are increasing their chances of getting into Cambridge. While state school applicants are increasingly likely to be offered places at top UK universities, it is safe to say that the jury is still out on whether moving to the state sector for 6th form is a gamble worth taking. We cover this subject in more detail here - Is private school still worth the money?

Sometimes a move after GCSE is an opportunity for a pupil to make a fresh start and can revitalise interest in academic work; a move from single sex to co-ed can also be a source of motivation. Catchment areas become more flexible at this level, as do religious schools’ requirements of church attendance.

You can find further information on choosing a school on our website and our London school experts are also on hand to help if you need further help or advice. 

Photo credit: Nonsuch High School for Girls, Sutton

An earlier version of this blog appeared in Spring 2021.


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