The process of choosing a prep school for your child is perhaps the most significant decision you will make on his or her behalf. Unlike a university, a secondary school, a first car and certainly your teenage daughter’s taste in clothes or boyfriends, the first school that they attend is a decision made solely by you. School is a place where they will learn and grow, understand how to interact with other people and care for the world around them. It is their experience, yet the quality of those experiences is decided by you in the choice of first school you make.
So how to navigate through the morass of information on independent schools, the terminology, associations, inspection bodies and articles about education? Well, local recommendations, the internet, naturally, are a start. But there is a wealth of information to wade through. Including school websites. So proceed with caution: it’s hard to know who to trust, at least until Sussex Style’s good schools guide hits newsstands…
So here is a brief overview. If you would like to discuss further, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Types of School
I use “independent” to describe a school which charges a fee for education of the children. “Private” is another term often used the same way. Independent schools are free of local authority control and operate under slightly different government rules (The Independent Schools Regulations) from state-funded schools. To add an even greater level of complexity, a new model of school has emerged recently – The Academy – which is also “independent” of local authority oversight but is state-funded. This guidance refers only to “independent” schools where fees are payable, although the process of choosing a school, whether state-funded or not, should be largely the same!
Age groups & National Curriculum
Children must start formal education in the UK in the school year (which runs between September 1st and August 31st) in which they turn 5. Provision for childcare can now be found for babies as young as 6 weeks, though very few schools will have provision for such young babies. Day nurseries usually accept babies as young as 6-12 weeks and provide care for children until they are old enough to start formal schooling. Most independent schools will accept children between 2 and 3 years old, some at 4 and some in the school year when the child turns 7.
It will be helpful for you to understand the age groups, classifications and year groups. This is also linked with the Government’s National Curriculum, a framework providing learning opportunities in state-funded schools in all conventionally understood subjects (English, Maths, History, PE, etc.). Independent schools are not obliged to follow this curriculum. However, it is expected that a curriculum will provide learning experiences in the following areas: Linguistic, Mathematical, Scientific, Technological, Human & Social, Physical and Aesthetic & Creative. There is no requirement to provide Religious Education, although many schools do, and all schools must promote spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Ultimately, the National Curriculum provides a convenient template upon which independent schools design their own curriculums.
The traditional model of a preparatory school is from Year 3 to 8. Pre-Prep Schools are usually up to Year 2 and may often include a nursery and/or preschool. Some prep schools will have all ages, others starting at nursery or a year below this. Further still, prep schools, and typically, but not exclusively, girls only or co-educational schools, will have a structure that takes children from preschool ages up to year 6 – an equivalent to state funded primary.
State schools group children by age, although the first formal year is called “Reception”. Below shows the age groups for children and their National Curriculum classes, which many independent schools use.
Age your child will be year
|0 to 3||Pre School||Early Years|
|6||Year 1||Key Stage 1|
|8||Year 3||Key Stage 2|
|12||Year 7||Key Stage 3 (although this ends at Year 9 in the state funded schools)|
You may encounter different nomenclature in independent schools which reflects history. Schools ought to explain their own particular structure to you.
A very good initial appraisal of a school comes through its inspection report. All schools are inspected. The majority are inspected by Ofsted (see below) but some by other inspection bodies such as ISI (www.isi.net) which is the usual inspectorate for independent schools in the Independent Schools Council associations. However, it is very important to assess the school personally, perhaps ask questions based on the school’s report, and get the “feel” of the school yourself. You have many ways of making the crucial decision about which school to choose, but the inspection report serves as a good starting point.
The Government department charged with standards in schools (the Department for Education, DfE) empower an independent body (the Office for Standards in Education, Ofsted) to regulate services that care for children and young people and those that provide education and skills to learners of all ages. Ofsted inspect almost all of the 22,700 plus state-funded and independent schools in the UK.
Some 2,600 plus schools are “independent” of state funding. A Memorandum of Understanding between DfE and OfSTED (http://bit.ly/MemOfUnd) holds that independent schools who are members of school associations and certain school organisations are to be inspected by bodies sanctioned by Ofsted and DfE.
Almost half of these (1,257 in 2014) are members of one of the 7 associations within the Independent Schools Council (http://www.isc.co.uk). These schools are inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI http://www.isi.net/home/).
The remainder, about another 1,200, are inspected by Ofsted. There are a small group of schools, about 35, that are inspected by the Schools Inspection Sevice (http://www.schoolinspectionservice.co.uk).
Associations & School Groups
The Independent Schools Council (ISC) is the umbrella organisation for seven independent schools associations. Each has a particular character but collectively, through the agency of ISC, present a unified voice for independent education in the UK and often beyond. Each association provides training and advice for members which promotes professional development and guides progress.
• IAPS: The Independent Association of Prep Schools. The largest, with approximately 650 schools, represents Prep and Pre-Prep Schools, and a small number of schools that have expanded provision to 16 (Year 11).
• HMC: Headmasters & Headmistresses Conference. The largest group of senior independent schools, with about 260 members. Some of these may have associated Junior or Prep/Pre-Prep departments or feeder schools and these are also often members of IAPS.
• ISA: Independent Schools Association. An association of both Prep and Senior schools.
• GSA: The Girls Schools Association. An association of Senior girls schools, as HMC occasionally with Junior departments or feeder schools
• SoH: The Society of Heads. A smaller group of senior schools. May have Junior/Prep or feeder schools.
• ISBA: The Independent Schools Bursars Association. A group representing bursars, business managers and estates managers at both Senior and Prep Schools.
• AGBIS: The Association of Governing Bodies in Independent Schools. Representing governors in both Senior and Prep Schools.
I hope that this guidance will shed some light on the complexity of the education landscape and the schools within it. Read widely and speak to those with direct experience. Your friends and relations will (possibly) be the most reliable sources. Visit the school – obvious yes, but an important first step. Read the school’s inspection report. There is much advice and support available but the very best is often your instinct. I wish you all the very best in your decision and hope the journey through school life for your children is happy and productive.