With the ever-growing competition in the British private education system, William Stadlen of Holland Park Tuition & Education Consultants lets parents know how they can best prepare their children for success
In the past, parents with two-year-old children have visited our consultants and asked in frantic tones “Is it too late for Cambridge?” The obvious answer, of course, is that it is not too late. However, once you’ve scratched beneath the veneer of competitive parenting, a long-sighted and goal-driven educational strategy is an entirely understandable and positive approach.
To elaborate upon the scenario above, top private schools in London and the UK have extremely impressive Oxbridge application success rates: Westminster Upper School, for example, saw 47 per cent of its 2012 cohort go to Oxbridge (this is the most recent data set, and this figure tends to stay around the 50 per cent mark). Therefore, if your child attends Westminster Upper School, the statistics would suggest that they have a ‘one in two’ chance of attending Oxbridge. Should Oxbridge be the university destination of choice for your child then, strategically speaking, attending Westminster Upper School should provide an excellent chance of securing this.
Once this route has been established, it seems prudent to examine how best to maximise your child’s chances of gaining a place at Westminster Upper School. Whilst all applicants will have to take the Westminster’s 13+ Exam (either the Common Entrance or ‘The Challenge’ – Westminster’s Scholarship exam), approximately 40-50 per cent of their applicants will be taken from Westminster Under School. As before, when considered strategically, securing a place at this school provides the best chance of successful upward entry. To go further backward through the chain, Wetherby Pre-Prep has traditionally been a strong feeder school for Westminster Under School and, unsurprisingly, its own nursery represents the best point of entry. To provide the best possible chance of attending an Oxbridge university, the statistics would suggest that Wetherby Nursery School is the best place to start.
Whilst some schools are less explicit about their ‘feeder’ status than others, the importance of this cannot be ignored. Indeed, as Holland Park’s Early Years & Nursery Consultant Sabine Hook says, “Some feeder nurseries and schools have strong links to schools because of a history of shared teachers or a geographical proximity. Those that are more established and well-respected might also have influence on the 4+, 7+, 8+, 11+ or 13+ assessments, as they have relationships with the heads of the best and most selective schools. If they feel a child will be a good fit for a school then they will often plead the child’s case to encourage acceptance.” This alumni culture provides reinforcement to the statistics as outlined earlier, and ultimately to the primacy of securing a place as early as possible at the best schools in Britain.
When all this is taken into account, therefore, it certainly puts into some degree of perspective how decisions made (or, perhaps more crucially, those decisions not made) on the behalf of a child of pre-school age can have long-standing ramifications on their future education, university and ultimately their career prospects. It is vital for parents to plan ahead, with a strategic emphasis – in other words, a knowledge of the private education system and how it can be used to one’s advantage – with desired end goals in mind to ensure that everything is planned well in advance and that no crucial deadlines or opportunities are missed.
So what end goals and deadlines are most relevant? Well, the education system in Britain (and London in particular) provides convenient delineation points via the modular private school system. In other words: nursery (< 4-years-old), pre-prep (4 – 7/8), prep (7/8 – 11/13), secondary (11/13 – 16/18) and university (18+). For the best schools in the country, entry to each institution is contingent upon success in a particular exam: pre-prep (4+), prep (7+/8+), secondary (11+/13+ Common Entrance or scholarship) and university (A-levels). These markers, therefore, are crucial to bear in mind as success in these exams will have a vital consideration upon the unique educational strategy for your child. Early preparation for these, and subsequent excellent performance in the exams, will provide the best chance for successful entry to those most prestigious educational institutions in Britain and, as we have demonstrated above, will increase your chances of successful application further up the chain.
As our initial example demonstrated, the most commonly desired universities among our clients tend to be either Oxford or Cambridge. What is clear from application statistics, as well as anecdotal evidence of this alumni culture, school history plays an influential role in determining Oxbridge application success. As Holland Park’s UCAS and Oxbridge Specialist Joyce Connell says, “It can’t be helped that dons come with preconceptions of students that hail from the likes of Eton, Winchester College and St. Paul̓s. Their legacy of success at Oxbridge means that dons will expect them to be naturally bright, well taught and informed young adults.” However, Connell goes on to point out that with state school success rates into Oxford and Cambridge incrementally increasing each year, the competition among privately educated students is ever fiercer. Ensuring that your child has received a fully-rounded education – including cultivating interest in reading widely, opening discussions about current affairs, participating in sports, music and drama, encouraging travel and fostering an appreciation of different cultures and languages – will increase exponentially their chances of successful entry.
Of course, it is extremely unlikely to suggest that a plan devised for your infant child will be followed without deviation to secondary school, university and beyond. Indeed, these Strategic Educational Roadmaps (as our consultants term them) are usually deliberately designed to be flexible and adaptable. Furthermore, we frequently recommend that parents develop several strategies: perhaps one as a ‘Plan A’, one as a contingency plan and one allowing for greater variance or a different combination of subjects (one tailored to securing a place reading Medicine at university, the other tailored to reading Law, for example). However, I hope that I have demonstrated the value of clear forward thinking; of identifying the very best that you want for your child and calculating the best and most probable strategy by which to achieve that.
As Connell concludes, “[Creating a successful Oxbridge application] doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it is the product of years of cultivation by the school and family towards your child achieving top grades at GCSE and A-level, in order to secure their first choice university offer. If your intent is to send your son or daughter to Oxbridge, preparation can never begin too early.” To return to the opening question, then, two-years-old is clearly not too late for Cambridge. But that doesn’t mean that the competition have not already gained an invaluable head start.