by Kate Hilpern, Contributing Editor, The Good Schools Guide

As the name suggests, the main aim of prep schools is to prepare pupils for entry to independent senior schools at either 11 or 13. 

As always, London dances to its own beat and whereas in the countryside it’s a case of putting little Harry or Harriet’s name down and just writing a cheque at your leisure, competition for places at 7+ and 8+ in London’s top prep schools can be fiercely competitive.

The good news comes in the form of pre-preps, a key way of preparing children for the prep’s competitive entrance exams. The bad news is the pressure can start as early as year 1 with practice papers. Think carefully about whether or not you want to put your child through a rigorous testing process at such a tender age or whether it might be better to choose a school where you can choose whether to leave or stay at 7 to avoid undue stress.

Regardless of whether you go for pre-prep or not, the bigger question is how you select the best prep school for your child. In a sense this is easy - prep schools stand or fall by their senior school destinations. So whether parents are aiming to get their 3 or 4 year old into the pre-prep of a chosen all-through school, or their 8 year old into a prep school that feeds top day and boarding schools, they are generally thinking several years ahead. Do remember, however, that all-through selective schools rarely guarantee that the pupils they accept into reception will move seamlessly into the secondary school. If they do not think your child will keep up, they will advise you – usually in year 5 – to start looking elsewhere.

A school that helps your child to become a confident and happy learner is always the best investment – it’s not a one size fits all decision – and pastoral care should be at the top of any parent’s list. As well as academic rigour, look for inclusive offerings across the arts, music, sport and co-curricular, and make sure your child will be able to access all opportunities, regardless of natural ability. In fact, one of the benefits of a good prep school is the range of after-school activities and many also have breakfast clubs – a bonus for working parents.

London prep schools, whilst bursting at the seams, are often not for the faint of heart and have fearsome reputations for preparing children for entry to top academic schools through a ferocious diet of revision, tests and extension work. This may suit a bright, robust and compliant child but may cause others to flounder.

With a few exceptions, outside of London places are in greater supply and competition for places less fierce. Country preps ensure they have broad horizons and a lot of fun alongside academia. They tend to concentrate on extending childhood - providing a varied diet of music, drama, art, sports, hobbies, interests and trips as well as exam preparation. Many boast extensive grounds, sports halls, shooting ranges, swimming pools, croquet lawns, even golf courses. 

Then there’s boarding to consider. Nowadays the majority of boarding prep schools have adapted to modern family life and offer options of weekly, flexi or full boarding as well as a day school option. There are very few preps left with no day places and most boarders are flexi or go home after matches on Saturdays. 

If full boarding is important, ask specific questions about the number of boarders that stay at weekends. Find out how many home and international students they have, ask their ages, and gender; if your daughter is the only 9 year-old girl, she may not be overly impressed with your choice. Investigate the type of activities boarders undertake. The occasional trip into town, followed by pizza and watching TV may appeal at first but the novelty quickly wears off if the programme isn't sufficiently varied.

If you want to get a feel for a prep school or two, attend their open days. Don't be dazzled by glitzy facilities or depressed by a dearth - look beyond. Prepare a list of questions and things to look for before you go. And if you like what you see, go back for a private visit, meet the head and watch the school at work. 

kate hilpern

Kate Hilpern has been a writer and contributing editor at The Good Schools Guide for more than five years. She visits and reviews more than thirty schools a year for the Guide. An experienced journalist, Kate has written regularly for the major UK newspapers and lifestyle magazines, specialising in education as well as family and social issues.

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