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As their name suggests, the main aim of ‘preparatory schools’, or prep schools, is to prepare children for entry to fee-paying senior schools at 11 or 13. Traditionally, pre-preps take children from 3 or 4 and prepare them for moving on to preps at 7 or 8. There are fewer stand-alone pre-preps than there used to be as their main market, the boarding prep, has declined in numbers. Today, many pre-preps and preps are linked schools, with more-or-less seamless transition between them and sometimes their senior school too.

In cities such as London, with fierce competition for 7+ places at top prep schools, quite a few stand-alone pre-preps survive. Their raison d’être is preparing children for these competitive exams, which can mean the pressure starts in year 1 with regular practice papers. Some, whilst having linked prep schools, also send large numbers of children elsewhere.

In recent years as many as 40 per cent to Westminster Under or Colet Court. Increasing numbers, currently 40 per cent, to Wetherby Prep, where entrance is automatic and the standards are rising, so why go through the stress of exams? 

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of Wetherby School.

Others feed a range of destinations, and can be a useful port of call for families moving at short notice, as they may have spaces left by children moving on at 4 or 5 to other junior schools. Far more boys’ than girls’ preps have 7+ intakes, so stand-alone pre-preps tend to have a preponderance of boys.

Choosing a preparatory school

Preps tend to stand or fall by their senior school destinations. Parents, whether they are aiming to get their 3 or 4 year old into the pre-prep of a chosen all-through school, or their 8 year old into a prep that sends many of its pupils to the top day or boarding schools, are generally looking ahead. Yet all-through selective schools rarely guarantee that children they take in at 3 or 4 or even 7 will have a seamless transfer upwards. If your child is felt to be struggling, you may well be advised to look elsewhere. Equally, a child who fails to gain a place at the pre-prep stage may well have developed sufficiently to sail in there or elsewhere later on.

So a school helps your child to become a happy and confident learner is the best investment – whether a London day or country boarding school.

Whole school theme of colour and light when we visited and lots of attractive work on show. Glorious herd of Elmer elephants made from plastic milk cartons and coloured paper. Lovely singing – the most in-tune bunch of rising 5s we've heard. An orderly, relaxed and friendly school. We saw much warm interaction between staff and small people and just wanted to stay and watch.

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of Highgate Pre-Prep and Junior School.

These feelings of excitement, pleasure and happiness seem to permeate right through the school – including the gardeners and maintenance staff and the charming and friendly cooks. (We had the most delicious lunch of roast pork and all the trimmings.)’

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of S.Anselm’s School.

The Good Schools Guide reviews hundreds of the best prep schools to help you make the right choice for your child. Most offer a range of after-school activities and a good many provide breakfast clubs - a bonus for working parents. An ever decreasing number of single-sex prep schools remain, and many of these now have co-ed nurseries and pre-preps. 

London prep schools are traditionally bursting at the seams. Many have a fearsome reputation for preparing children for entry to London senior schools with a ferocious diet of revision, tests and extension work, which suits the bright, robust child but may cause others to flounder.

This is a school that offers boys with high academic potential a dazzling start in life. Most leave not only with great academic results, but excellent general knowledge, huge intellectual curiosity and an appreciation of all things cultural. Myths abound that these are boffins that are hothoused, but in fact we found they are boys with a great sense of fun and who are highly motivated, genuinely enjoying being stretched. For the right boy, this school is hard to fault, but boys who wind up struggling could feel left out in the drive to achieve.

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of The Hall School, Hampstead.

With a few exceptions, once you move outside London places are in greater supply and competition generally less fierce. The effects of the recession means many country preps will bend over-backwards to have your offspring on their books. They traditionally ensure they have broad horizons and a lot of fun alongside academia. They tend to concentrate on extending childhood - providing a varied diet of music, drama, art, sports, hobbies, interests and trips as well as exam preparation. Many boast extensive grounds, sports halls, shooting ranges, swimming pools, croquet lawns, even golf courses. 

‘Family dogs wandering round the house - in fact one of them has its own blog - plus chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs in the garden. Golf clubs piled up in the front porch - the school has its own golf course. No one feels pushed or pressurised here but school still gets fantastic results and there is a spontaneous celebration in each other's achievements. Children are natural and confident and are happy to strike up a conversation with adults but can remain children for longer in these idyllic surroundings with lots of space and time to be free.’

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of Ashdown House School.

Many boarding prep schools, adapting to modern family life, offer a choice of weekly, flexi or full boarding as well as a day school option. However, these days, there are very few preps with no day places, and most boarders are weekly or flexi. Ludgrove bucks the trend as one of the few full-boarding-only preps.

Attractive 19th century building was purpose-built as school and it shows. Dorms all south-facing with attractive big windows and same gorgeous view over greenery as from head’s study. Every pillow adorned with loved, often dilapidated soft toy, resident seamstress (‘crucially important,’ says Mrs Barber) on hand to work miracles when teddies’ arms come adrift or eyes go missing. Matrons much praised. ‘Never shout if you do something wrong,’ said pupil. ‘Say it doesn’t matter, don’t worry.’ 

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of Ludgrove.

If full boarding is important, ask specific questions about the number of boarders that stay at weekends. Find out how many home and international students they have, ask their ages, and gender; if your daughter is the only 9 year-old girl she may not be overly impressed with your choice. Investigate the type of activities boarders undertake. If you have an active child make sure weekends match and that a full programme of activities is offered, especially for younger children. The occasional trip into town, followed by pizza and watching TV may appeal at first but the novelty quickly wears off if the programme isn't sufficiently varied.

Feels happy and free - described by one parent as a 'tree climbing education centre.’ There is a distinct feel of Famous Five here. The amazing grounds are fully used by the children; one parent described how the matrons have to drag them in to bed during the summer months, and how kids are out playing golf and cricket before breakfast - ‘kids have the freedom to be children’ (children with a nine hole golf course).’

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of Windlesham House School.

Paying a visit

If you want to get a feel for a prep school or two, attend their open days. Don't be dazzled by glitzy facilities or depressed by a dearth - look beyond.

  • Do you like the head, the staff, the atmosphere, the library?
  • Is the school well cared for? Does it smell good? Are the toilets clean and biscuits crunchy?
  • What of the children? Are they friendly, polite, chatty, mannered, smart? Scruffy or sculptured, what matters is, can you imagine your child in amongst the children at the school?
  • Chat to other parents; do you have anything in common? Are there similarities between their children and yours?
  • What about sports, drama, art? Is there something for your child? Are sports and music inclusive, who gets in the teams and bands? What standard are they - is this what you would hope for?
  • Do they stretch the able, help the struggling and recognise these two traits may occur in the one child?
  • What happens when things go wrong? Who is on hand to help, how? Are they caring and nurturing, forgive and forget or strict and unbending?
  • Are they alert to bullying? Ask for instances and find out how bullies and perpetrators are dealt with.
  • How will they communicate with you and when? Are parents welcome, if so when, for what and to do what?

If a school is of particular interest, request a private visit and make sure it includes time to see the head and watch the school at work. Try to get a balanced view of the school - chat to pupils, staff other parents, don't allow the marketing manager to dominate your visit, before you visit (and after) browse the website, prospectus and marketing literature - they'll all be glossy with happy, smiley faces, but do you like the tone and the events they put centre stage? Same old faces, same old names or a good smattering of faces, across the ages?

‘The head confesses they are relaxed about petty issues – untucked shirts, scruffy uniform and clutter – while concentrating on the things that matter, such as learning. He likens the school to an upturned swan – feet paddling busily on the surface whilst the underlying systems of the school are serene and quiet. Unconventionality, or ‘colouring outside the lines’, has always been and still is encouraged, although head admits it is ‘a balancing act’ between risk-taking in schoolwork, striving for imagination and curiosity on one side, and discipline and toeing the line on the other.’

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of the Dragon School.

Getting in

Entry requirements at 3 or 4 vary considerably from 'first-come, first-served' (which may mean name down at birth) to mini-assessment days complete with interview and observations to see just how well Harriet integrates with her peers and playmates. Few will expect children to read and write on entry but, such is the pressure for places at some pre-preps, particularly in London that, parents have been known to enlist the help of tutors for their 3-year-olds, to get the required head-start. Some heads have equated this to tearing up £20 notes, and in general the play and learning that goes on at home or nursery school should be adequate preparation.

At 7 or 8, nearly every prep school operates a formal assessment process. For a country prep, this may be for setting purposes only, or to ensure the child doesn’t have education needs or behavioural difficulties they cannot accommodate. For many London day schools, the pressure is on.

‘In the January of the proposed entry year, applicants sit the school's bespoke entrance tests in maths, English (combined comprehension, reading and spelling), verbal and non-verbal reasoning. Always sought-after, competition for places increasing sharply, with applicants from 'literally hundreds of schools'.’

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of Colet Court.

Some preps have an intake at 11+, generally from local state primary schools. Many of these are co-ed preps where most of the girls move on at 11, and which can use the spaces to take in pupils who need help to prepare for 13+ exams. Some prestigious boys’ preps, such as The Hall and Arnold House in north London, offer bursaries to state school boys who join them for the final two or three years with a view to gaining bursaries or scholarships to top public schools. Pupils who gain highly-sought-after 11+ places at the preps of leading boys’ senior schools, such as Westminster Under School and Colet Court, are guaranteed places at Westminster School or St Pauls.

Moving on

In grammar school areas, many preps are adept at preparing pupils for their 11+ exams. Otherwise, on the whole, girls move on to senior school at 11 and boys at 13 – though there are many exceptions, with many London co-ed schools in particular having their main intake for both sexes at 11, and some girls’ boarding schools also having a sizeable 13+ intake.

Entrance exam at 11+ (English, maths, VR). ‘Please don’t coach,’ the school begs parents. ‘We can spot the child who has been coached.’ We imagine most parents have their hands over their ears and are singing loudly. At 13+ exams in maths, English, science, VR and French (if previously studied).

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of Cheltenham Ladies' College.

All-through schools tend to expect to hang on to most of their pupils at this stage, though some may warn strugglers a year or two ahead to look elsewhere.

‘Parents take note: entry to the senior school is not automatic. By Easter of Y5, reserved places (ie places that are guaranteed) are offered only to those girls ‘who continue to develop’. Any child who joined the school later than Y3 doesn’t get one at all, and must sit for a place along with the external candidates.’

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of City of London School for Girls (Prep School).

These all-through schools will not spend plenty of their final two years on exam preparation. Stand-alone preps, however, must ensure that their pupils are well-prepared for 11+ or common entrance, even if this does include copious practice papers. Their aim is to match child and senior school destination – and manage parental expectations. The prep school head should have a good relationship with a range of secondary schools as well as a good knowledge of his or her pupils’ interests and abilities. Most children should end up with a place at their first (managed) choice.

‘Sometimes we have to work with parents to adjust their expectations, particularly if they’ve set their heart on a specific school from an early age, but most parents trust our judgement,’ says Garth. Others are just grateful for the help given in pointing them in the right direction. ‘My daughter is not at all academic,’ said one mother, ‘but they did everything to find a school that worked for her and she is now immensely happy.’

Extract from the Good Schools Guide review of The Academy School.

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