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If an independent school education features heavily on your wish list then you'll need a nest-egg in the region of £150,000 - the equivalent of small mortgage - per child, to cover private day school fees alone. Indeed some schools have introduced 'mortgage style' payment options for those who want an independent school education but can't afford the fees up front.

Factor in boarding education, at a top senior school, and £150k won't even cover the last five years. There are money saving possibilities of course - bursaries scholarships, fee plans...

Fortunately, paying for a private education, from finger painting to Freshers’ Week and beyond, is not the only option, with even the very wealthy oft choosing when or whether to pay and where to save.

As we explain....

Finessing the state and independent sectors

If mix and match is what you’re after, how you do it will very much depend on where you live. Are there:

  • Good local primary schools?
  • Excellent comprehensive schools?
  • Selective state grammar schools?

Plan early. Consider:

  • The sex of your child (in general pay for boys before girls, they need all the early help they can get).
  • The religion you practise (convert to Catholicism prior to conception and go straight to education heaven).
  • Your child’s personality and ability - easier said than done of course!

And consider enlisting the help of our own Good Schools Guide Advice Service. Our most experienced and knowledgeable advisors work one-to-one with you to make the best possible choices for your child's schooling.

Primary vs prep school

Financially, obviously the longer you defer paying the longer you’ll have to save. Though the flip side is that  fees at independent schools tend to rise, incrementally, almost annually, and senior schools tend to be more expensive than junior schools - so an early start in the fee-paying sector, with transfer out to the state sector later, will be less burdensome on the pocket.

A good primary school – particularly since the introduction of the National Curriculum and the competitive energy now put into Sats – should ensure that your child will read and write fluently and achieve a high level of verbal and numerical understanding by the age of 11. Some primary schools also provide excellent music, drama, sport and French, although these are often catered for in out-of-school clubs or with the support of parents.

Many parents worry that if they do not get their child into a good prep at 4 or 7, she will have no chance of getting into an academically selective state or independent senior school at 11. This is absolutely not the case.

How do I know where the good primary schools are?

If you want to check how a primary school matches up to the private sector, one of the best indicators is the percentage of year 6 children (ages 10/11) who achieve level 5 or even 6 in their key stage 2 Sats – the level that would be expected from the great majority of children in a good selective prep school.

These figures are now included in the performance tables: subscribers to this site will find them on the individual school pages (but only for English state schools). You can also see if a primary school is good for a child like yours - whether high achieving, a little above average, just below or struggling...

>State primary school works particularly well ive an able child who finds little difficulty with the three Rs – particularly since the government is now putting considerable energy into programmes for the ‘gifted and talented’. At the other extreme, those with serious learning difficulties, particularly if they are ‘statemented’ (ie officially recognised as needing support) will be given one-on-one extra help at no extra charge to you - though provision varies considerably between and within schools and depending on the type and nature of those difficulties.

Stuck in the middle?

Those in the middle may be the ones who thrive least well in a busy primary school – as much psychologically as academically.

A hard-pressed teacher with a mixed-ability class of 30 children often simply doesn't have the energy to focus on this unexciting middle group and a parent with an under-confident, just-getting-by child may decide it’s worth pinching pennies for the extra attention that a private school can provide at this stage.

Some parents choose to use the state system for the early years only (nursery to year 2), intending to move to a prep school at 7 or 8. In many ways this is one of the most difficult leaps to execute. Prep schools, particularly in central London, make little allowance for a child who cannot read and write as fluently as candidates from more results-driven pre-preps.

So, unless you have an exceptionally able child, or live in an area where prep-school entry is not so competitive, it's probably wise to get some coaching in at home.

Secondary school choices

Moving from state school sector to private education at 11 is becoming increasingly widespread and many leading day schools, for boys as well as girls, now have their largest intake at this age.

The 11+

The 11-plus entry works particularly well for boys moving from the state sector since, unlike their less fortunate sisters competing against prep-school educated girls (who also change schools at 11), most prep-school educated boys don’t change schools until they are 13.

Many independent schools,  ever mindful of those A level league tables, are increasingly keen to attract the brightest and the best, so much of the emphasis of the 11-plus entrance test is now put on raw IQ, which is generally gauged by verbal and/or non-verbal reasoning tests, plus English and maths.

The high-flying City of London School for Boys, for example – which has always had a broad intake in terms of means and social class – takes two thirds of its 11-plus entrants from the state sector and adjusts its marking according to the provenance of the candidates, giving leeway to those from state primary schools.

Even academically and socially elite public schools such as Westminster and Eton are now eager to attract the ablest children from the state sector. 11 year olds can join Westminster Under School with more-or-less guaranteed entry to the senior school; Eton offers up to four New Foundation Scholarships a year to 13 year olds who have spent at least the last three years in the state sector.

IQ alone is not the only factor. Parents keen to make the transition at 11 may wish to hire a tutor (or tutor themselves) from the middle of year 5 (year 6 is too late!) to solidify their child’s literacy and numeracy and prepare their child for the unfamiliar and idiosyncratic verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests. You can find some help on this website

Alternatively, many prep schools welcome pupils aged 10 or 11 to train them up for senior school entrance at 13 – although this mostly applies to boys’ or co-ed schools.

Don’t be too concerned about how your son or daughter will cope with the change from state to private. Most schools say that pupils have entirely integrated by the end of their first year.

Grammar school vs independent school

If you live in an area such as Kent or Buckinghamshire, still primarily served by grammar or selective state schools, the approach is often to concentrate expenditure at primary school level, hoping to ensure a child will be ahead in the race for a grammar school place.

If this is your intended strategy, bear in mind that  grammar schools are not allowed to interview candidates and are thus even more dependent on IQ testing than the independent sector. A top grammar school may be as much as ten times over-subscribed, compared to three or four times at a leading independent school so, if you feel your child doesn't have the raw material to compete in these immensely cut-throat exams, be prepared to go private all the way.

The more difficult debate – admittedly only a conflict for a small number – is the choice between, say, a scholarship to City of London, a place at Westminster and a place at one of London’s leading grammar schools. Thinking of all the other things you can do with the money solves that for most people, though you may lose out on breadth of facilities and extracurricular activities.

Independent schools, A levels and universities

Social issues are, of course, as important for many parents of children at independent schools as the education itself. A recent study has shown that state educated students on average get a better class of degree than students from independent schools with the same A level grades, but the jury is out on whether this will affect university offers.

It may now be slightly more difficult for some public school educated candidates to study some subjects at some universities but Oxbridge – despite all its best efforts – still takes some 50 per cent of its candidates from the independent sector.

If financial constraints are paramount, then this is a reasonable time to return to the state, since there’s far greater choice than at 11. Catchment areas become more flexible, older students can travel greater distances and a well-prepared candidate from an independent school may well achieve the clutch of As and A*s at GCSE needed to gain a place at a highly selective state sixth form. Your son or daughter will need to have strong foundations and good motivations – it can be easy to go astray unobserved in a big state sixth form, let alone a college.

From state to private school at A level

For those with a gifted or able child – in music, art, sports or academics – transferring to the private sector for A levels can also be a wise choice.

There is far greater scholarship funding for students with ability at sixth form (age 16) than there is at any other time in the independent education cycle.

For those with an idiosyncratic choice of A level subjects, there can be considerably more flexibility and some really superb teaching


However you choose to play the education game, bear in mind – something often neglected by parents transfixed by a system as complex as Grand Master chess – that no decision is final. If something is not working out for you or your child at any point, it’s almost always possible to change, and often much easier to do at a stage when not everyone else is making the same decision.

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