Standing outside any of London’s top schools and looking at the children and parents milling in and out, it is striking how international it has all become. People seem to flock to these schools from all over the world, in some cases moving specifically to London for that reason. And it’s not just the international super-rich who are attracted to the best that British education has to offer – the ethos and tradition, academic rigour, amazing facilities and sporting culture. Despite the hefty fees, which sure as clockwork continue to rise every year, middle-class professionals often still opt to go private, at least for a part of their offspring’s schooling. In London, word on the street is that stretched but canny middle-class operators send their children to state schools until 11, then go private until 16, and move their kids to a state Sixth Form for the perceived advantage of applying to top universities from the maintained sector.
So is it all really worth the expense, let alone the hassle of getting them into the most selective schools? The answer, of course, is that it depends… partly on the child, and also on parental expectations. Overall, state primaries in London have improved dramatically, and many now outperform those in other parts of the country. A good primary school will provide a solid grounding and the new curriculum means that the gap which existed between primary schools and prep schools has narrowed somewhat. What they won’t do, and there is no reason they should, is to prepare children for competitive entrance exams such as the 7+, 8+, 10+, 11+. Children won’t learn the intricacies of exam technique, or do any preparation at all for those exams.
This is where the booming tutoring business comes to its own; you are as likely to hear playground conversations about tutors as about the weather these days, and the names and numbers of so-called ‘super tutors’ are tightly guarded, only to be divulged once they are no longer needed. But it’s not just state school children preparing for entrance exams who have tutors… reports of pupils at highly regarded pre-preps and prep schools having up to 16 hours a week of private tuition on top aren’t exaggerated, and neither are stories of children with a dozen different tutors to cover all subjects, or live-in governesses who effectively provide 24-7 tuition to their charges (that’s the idea, anyway.) It may seem crazy… but is it worth it?
There are private schools and private schools; it’s important to differentiate between highly selective independent schools, where the ability band in a class is much narrower and consequently the pace of learning is faster, and non-selective pre-prep or prep schools, which admit a wider range of children. The advantage of all private schools is that classes tend to be smaller than in the state sector, and therefore even in schools which aren’t academically selective children do progress much faster; it’s one thing to deal with 18 or 20 children of varying ability, another one altogether to have a class of 30, where the difference between the top and bottom set can be as much as a 2 year gap. But children with special educational needs are very often very well served for in the state sector, and may do as well at a state school as they would in a private one.
If sports is important to you – or art, or music – the independent sector tends to offer better facilities and specialist teaching. Most state primary schools simply can’t compete, and parents end up making extra-curricular arrangements. But going private can mean missing out on being part of the local community; most state primaries have small catchment areas, and therefore children tend to live locally, whereas independent schools draw in children from all over London and sometimes beyond it. If it matters to you that your child has local friends, and indeed that he or she meets children from a wide social circle, you may want to consider your options.
The most important thing is to find a school that suits your child, and if you are prepared to pay, not to be dazzled by the reputations and academic track records of the crème de la crème of independent schools. Westminster Under, St Paul’s Juniors (formerly Colet Court), King’s College School, Bute House, Kensington Prep and the like are great schools, but they are not the only schools. It’s crucial to look beyond the brand and find a school where your child will thrive and be prepared for the next stage in their education without curtailing their enjoyment of childhood.