Securing a place at a top independent or grammar school often means navigating the 11-plus exam.
Deciding whether to put children through tutoring before the exam can be a concern for parents, with some head teachers warning against the practice, while others say it’s essential to make sure children are fully prepared.
So who should you listen to? And would it be better for your child, if you have the money, to send them to prep school instead?
This week, we look at another common concern dealt with by The Good Schools Guide Advisory Service.
As with many questions, the right answer isn’t always right for everyone, but here the experts offer their views. Get in touch with your own education question and see it featured on Telegraph Education (details at the end).
Question: Should we pay for a prep school in the hope of getting a grammar school place?
“Does it make sense to send our daughter to an independent prep school in the hope that she will gain a place at the local grammar school or, maybe, a scholarship at an independent senior school or would it be better to save our money, send her to the local primary and hope that she gets into a good independent senior school later for which we should then be able to pay? We have two younger sons as well and only one of us has a definite permanent job so we need to take into account an uncertain income and the need to be fair to all three children.”
Vivienne Durham: Prep schools are expert in preparing children for common entrance exams
This is a tricky question and one that we get asked all the time. There is no easy – or right – answer. This decision should be guided by the personalities of your children and financial planning for your family. In a nutshell, my advice would be to make the best decision for you and your family at each stage of each child’s education.
There are many superlative maintained (state) primary schools, in which the quality of teaching and learning is outstanding. You can often sense the atmosphere of great schools – regardless of sector – the moment you walk through the door.
However, it can be hard to get a place in the very best state primary schools, some of which require residency within a localised catchment area or adherence to faith-based selection criteria.
Independent prep schools provide a happy, academically stimulating and creative learning environment and many of those outside London have exceptional space and facilities for sport and extra-curricular activities.
“There are many superlative maintained (state) primary schools, in which the quality of teaching and learning is outstanding – but it can be hard to get a place.”
Independent prep schools can offer many educational advantages. The curriculum is often taught by subject specialists and teacher: pupil ratios tend to be significantly lower than in the state sector, enabling greater individual attention for every child.
Most prep schools are expert in preparing children for the common entrance examinations at 11-plus or 13-plus, which are required by many (but not all) independent senior schools.
The curriculum in primary schools is not designed to offer support or practice for these examinations and specialist advice should be sought several years prior to the chosen age of Common Entrance.
Above all, it is always worth contacting the bursary department of your preferred independent school to discuss your family’s financial context. School fees make a huge dent in the annual budget of most families who choose independent education so don’t be afraid to be honest about your concerns.
Bursars understand financial realities and most will be willing to offer advice, wherever possible. Have the confidence to make contact. Many independent schools offer bursaries (which are based on financial criteria) as well as scholarships (which are awarded for outstanding achievement by a student).
Vivienne Durham, schools advisory director at Enjoy Education and former head at Francis Holland School, Regent’s Park
Susan Hamlyn: If there is a good local state primary, save your money and pay for a tutor
It’s hard to weigh up quality of education, finances and an uncertain future and make decisions that will affect all of you for years to come.
A good primary education is always important but the senior schools look for raw intelligence and teachability rather than evidence of the drilling many preps provide.
Independent, academically selective schools and grammar schools use sophisticated means of assessment when determining to whom to offer places.
The important thing is that your daughter is happy at her primary as happy children relax and learn. If your local primary is not right for her and you can’t move to better one, then a good prep is probably the answer.
“If your daughter is clearly able you may be best advised to save your money, send her to the local state primary and get some tutoring for her.”
But don’t see it as a golden ticket to an academically selective secondary. The only thing that will determine that – for all three children – is their actual ability and they may well all be very different and need different schools in order to thrive.
If your daughter is clearly able you may be best advised to save your money, send her to the local state primary and get some tutoring for her in the year before she sits her 11-plus exams.
Tutoring won’t prepare her if she is assessed only via computerised reasoning tests but if she is sitting maths and English tests to time limits it will help, as all the prep school candidates and those who’ve been tutored – against whom she’ll be competing – will have had masses of this kind of practice.
Susan Hamlyn, director of The Good Schools Guide Advice Service
Richard Foster: A good prep school will give your daughter the support she needs
One of the biggest attributes of a prep school education is their ability to prepare a child for common entrance exams by getting to know them, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and what might be the right environment for them at an independent senior school – so it does make sense to consider preparatory education at this stage.
If your daughter has real academic ability, or a talent in art, music, drama, sport, or ICT, a preparatory school will provide her with the necessary support she needs to give her the best chance of gaining a scholarship to a fee paying senior school.
However, if you do find a really good state funded primary school in your catchment area you will still most probably have to consider extracurricular lessons and tuition for your daughter to get her up to the right standard for the exams set by senior schools.
Nothing is guaranteed. It is worth asking your local state and independent prep schools about how many of their children on average received scholarships and means tested bursaries to private senior schools or gained places at selective grammar schools in your area.
“Even if you do find a really good state funded primary school in your catchment area you will still most probably have to consider extracurricular lessons and tuition for your daughter.”
You might also want to think about your child’s strengths and whether she might apply for music, arts, sports or a academic scholarship, and the kind of support she’ll need realistically to be the right level for common entrance at an independent school or selective state school without putting too much pressure on her in the face of strong competition from other children.
What’s best for your child is paramount at this formative stage in her life. I would argue that your daughter would gain in confidence and independence at prep school because this is the mantra behind the philosophy of any good prep school and that this will benefit her.
In my experience, where there is a will there is a way when it comes to younger siblings following in the older child’s footsteps. However, I would advise you to do your research in the first instance. Speak to your local primary school, prep schools and senior schools as much as possible about your children and the best route to take with their education.
Also, have an exit strategy. When you’ve selected a junior school for your child it is important to have a realistic idea of which senior school you want your child to attend and what that means financially and to the child.
Richard Foster, headmaster, Windlesham House School
Julie Robinson: Research bursary possibilities now and forward plan financially
Your question shows you are in a strong position as you outline various options, and with both state and independent education available you have the crucial element of choice.
You will want to research your local school options so that you can do what is best for each of your children. If you have an excellent state primary school nearby, that would of course be difficult to overlook.
If that’s not the case and you feel going to an independent prep school is the best option, make sure that you know how much the fees are likely to be so that you can plan carefully.
It’s worth researching the scholarship and bursary possibilities with each fee-charging school option – a third of all independent school pupils receive some fee assistance.
“It’s worth researching the scholarship and bursary possibilities with each fee-charging school option – a third of all independent school pupils receive some fee assistance.”
Given the proven importance of a good start in early years, you might subscribe to the view that the first phase of schooling is the most important and therefore choose to invest in that as soon as possible.
Where are your children likely to achieve the best start in life? If your daughter has good prospects for grammar school, then weigh-up the best way to prepare her for that next stage. Being aware of all your options and good financial forward-planning will keep you in control of the situation.
Let the schools know your dilemma, seek their advice and take each phase of education as it comes. It is difficult to predict how each of your children will develop from year to year and you will want to programme in regular reviews of their overall progress: socially, in sport/activities/interests and the arts as well as academically and in terms of developing confidence and independence.
You are right not to commit yourself for the long term at this early stage because you will want to keep under review what is the best environment for each of them as they grow up.
Julie Robinson, General Secretary, Independent Schools Council (ISC)