THE FIRST STEP
Choosing a prep school brings with it a whole host of questions and obstacles. So what do you tackle to begin with?
Where does the time go? One minute you’re choosing prams; the next you’re registering for school open days. While there will always be parents who try to reverse engineer their pre-verbal toddler’s academic career from Oxbridge or Ivy League colleges backwards, for the rest of us the choice of our child’s first school will largely be dictated by circumstances. But when faced with a choice of good schools, how do you decide?
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
If you’re a first-timer at the schools game or have recently moved to a new area, it’s very easy to be influenced by what you hear other parents saying about the local state primary or private preps. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that schools go in and out of ‘fashion’ for all kinds of reasons and that a disgruntled parent will make more noise than a whole class of satisfied ones.
Do your own research and, above all, go to open days or arrange visits. Bear other opinions in mind, but trust your own instincts about what’s best for your child. When you visit a school don’t be dazzled by facilities or too quick to judge a lack of glitz – schools are essentially about people, not things. Make sure you meet the head or at least attend their talk – what kind of an impression do they make? How about the children – could you see your child fitting in with them?
If you know that you would like your son or daughter to go to a particular selective grammar or independent senior school then it makes sense to choose a ‘feeder’ prep with an established record of getting children places there.
But if you’re not yet sure about senior schools don’t worry, the raison d’être of preps is to prepare pupils for entrance tests at 11 or 13. An important part of any prep school head’s job is to maintain relationships with senior schools and he or she will be able to advise you about which ones would suit your child’s aptitudes best.
STAND ALONE OR ALL THROUGH?
Many pre-preps and preps are seamlessly linked schools with a guaranteed transition between them. Some preps are themselves linked to a senior school and if they’re on the same site will benefit from shared provision such as sports facilities or science labs. This ‘all through’ option is very attractive to parents – just get your child in at age three or four and they’re sorted until they leave for university. Or are they? While the pros are easily understood, there are cons. Come the teenage years and some pupils will kick against the familiarity of a place they’ve known for years. And all-through isn’t always seamless. Selective schools rarely guarantee that the pupils they accept into reception will automatically be offered a place into the secondary school.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
A great school a short, safe walk away from home is the holy grail for many parents. If you live close to a good state or independent school then consider yourself very fortunate. Not only will your child have local friends, in time they could also be walking or even cycling themselves to and from school.
For schools that aren’t within walking distance it’s important to do some test runs at peak times to assess the reality of pick up and drop off. Don’t rely on Google Maps for this, there’s no substitute for the real thing. The last thing you or your child needs is a long, stressful journey at the end of a school day. That rural prep might look idyllic, but may seem less so when nearby lanes are choked with traffic. Many pre-prep or prep schools offer a bus service – this could be an answer, albeit an expensive one.
There is such a variety of delightful prep and junior schools all over the country that whatever your child’s character and talents you should be able to find a school that’s right for them – and for you.
Living close to school is a must for many