What do independent schools teach? This is not a straightforward question. Independent schools are precisely that, independent and self-managing. Schools determine their own programmes of study and which qualifications and examination boards to use. Just as each school has a different school day and a particular balance between sports and arts, so each school offers a different range of subjects and a different range of qualifications.

What exam boards ask schools to teach changes constantly. The guide below will give you a few pointers to help you become familiar with the jargon of qualifications and study programmes. But remember that a good education is always about good teaching. A genuinely inspiring teacher will know how to deliver more than is required, challenging their pupils to achieve more than they thought possible, whilst sharing their love of their subject.

Use the Independent Schools Show to discuss academic choices with individual schools. Find out what they teach and why. The Education Theatre programme of talks also focuses on learning choices. Meet the UK’s leading heads and education thinkers and have your questions answered. By the end of the Show you should have a clear sense of the type of education that would most benefit your child.

Nursery & Pre-School

Nurseries and pre-schools have a great deal of freedom and most blend methods and approaches to create their own distinctive programme. All pre-schools catering for children under the age of 5 have to follow the government’s statutory guidance and they are all assessed by Ofsted.

Whilst most nurseries do not align themselves too closely with one philosophy, some do adopt a particular ethos. Montessori nurseries believe that children become self-motivated, creative learners and achieve greater independence in a child-led environment, where the children choose what and when they learn. Steiner Waldorf believes that formal learning of the three R’s should not start until the age of seven. Before that age the focus is on social, emotional and physical development.

Preparatory Schools

Most prep schools follow the National Curriculum. However, there can be differences in how that curriculum is delivered. Classes are usually smaller and many schools group children by academic ability. The workload can be more intensive especially as children are prepared for 11+ and 13+ school entrance and scholarship assessments (see last week’s Update).

Most preparatory schools have subject specialist teachers from Year 5 or 6, which is several years earlier than the state system. If your child is transferring from the state system you might well want to consider some catch-up tuition.


Over the last ten years an increasing number of independent schools have adopted iGCSEs as they are considered by many to be a more rigorous qualification than GCSEs. It is very unusual for parents to choose a school because of a school’s 16+ qualification choices, but parents comparing senior schools should be aware that an iGCSE school will find it more difficult to top the league tables. The programmes of study for iGCSE and GCSE are established by the examination boards (see below).

A level & IB

Ignore everything your younger cousins told you about coursework, AS levels and grade inflation. A levels have adopted a ‘new’ format which is much closer to the exams you probably took twenty or thirty years ago. The new approach is called ‘linear’ in the trade. This means it is once again a two-year curriculum with one set of examinations at the end of the sixth form. Keen students can still take AS levels but they no longer count towards A level grades.


IB gained traction a decade ago when A level grade inflation was most problematic. Both are now very strong systems. Schools exhibiting in the show will supplement what is examined with their own in-house curriculum that prepares sixth formers for the intense challenges posed by the top universities.

US & UK Higher Education

Increasingly all applicants to the world’s top universities have perfect grade scores. Competitive edge is acquired by demonstrating your ability, interest and potential.

UK applications are managed by academics in each department, who are generally most interested in the applicants who can demonstrate depth of interest. However keep playing in the orchestra and yomping across Cumbria for your Duke of Edinburgh Gold. Evidence of wide-ranging interests is used to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Well-rounded profiles are particularly important when applying to US universities as students are selected by admissions committees, not departmental academics. Independent schools are very familiar with all aspects of UK university admission. Many now send significant numbers of students to US universities. The US process is far more complex and if you are considering this, it is prudent to start discussing your options early.

Exam boards & Inspections

If you want to indulge your inner policy wonk you might like to look at the differences between exam boards and inspections criteria. Don’t worry too much about this. Schools employ their most brilliant teachers to be Directors of Study and do this for you.

  • The A-Level and GCSE curriculum is determined by the exam boards. There are currently five of these, AQA, OCR and CIE, Edexcel, CCEA and ICAAE, WJEC, all supervised by the regulator, Ofqual.
  • The iGCSE (International GCSE) was developed by Cambridge University 25 years ago, and the qualification is now also offered by EdExcel.
  • Cambridge Pre-U was developed by Cambridge in 2008.
  • The IB Diploma Programme was developed by International Baccalaureate, a Swiss based educational organisation, founded in 1969.

Most prep and senior independent schools are members of the Independent Schools Council. Member schools, which teach 500,000 pupils, are inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate. Ofsted inspects schools not in the ISC, but also inspects all nursery and boarding provision. When an ISC school is rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted this refers to boarding or nursery provision.

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  Saturday 24 April 2021 10:00-17:00
Sunday 25 April 2021 10:30-16:30

  Battersea Evolution, Battersea Park, London, SW8 4NW