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Mary Murayama, Joint Managing Director of Education Advisers Ltd, discusses choosing the best independent prep school for entry to a top senior school

For international parents with young children aged 3-10, finding the best school is always a major priority, but for many families living in or moving into London, getting your child into a private school that will meet his or her needs not only now, but in the future, can be a bewildering and stressful process. Bearing in mind that the transition to senior school takes place at the age of 11 or 13, it is vital to look ahead and adopt what we would call an ‘Education for Life’ strategy.

The entry process into world-famous schools such as St Paul’s, Westminster, Wycombe Abbey, Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Winchester College and Eton can be something of a mystery to the uninitiated. A glance at the admissions pages of any school’s website will often raise more questions than it answers. Registration deadlines, pre-testing, house selection, entrance exams, scholarship exams and Common Entrance are often alien concepts to parents who are unfamiliar with the system.

So how, for example, does a bright seven-year old boy currently at an international school in Singapore get from there to Eton? How does an eight-year old South African girl who is top of her class at her private school in Cape Town win a place at Wycombe Abbey?

Whilst in theory it is possible to get into a top UK senior school directly from an international school or indeed from any state or private school anywhere in the world, in practice the odds are stacked against a child who has not had the advantage of being thoroughly prepared for the whole process. A percentage of boys joining schools such as Winchester College do so from private prep schools in the UK. James Hanson, Headmaster of Aldro Prep in Godalming, which regularly sends boys off to the country’s top senior schools, believes that a prep school education is the ideal foundation for progression to a top senior boarding school: “When thinking about a top senior school, remember that the vast majority of pupils come from top UK prep schools… They are so good at preparation; socially, boarding, academic and holistic development, that the transition is often very easy.”

Whilst it is relatively straightforward to identify the highest performing senior schools based on their students’ exam results at 16 or 18 (see www.best-schools.co.uk/league-tables) it is much harder to identify the top performing prep schools. Education Advisers has devised a method of ranking prep schools according to the percentage of children who progress to top senior schools. On www.bestprepschools.co.uk we publish two separate tables of top preps, one for London preps that feed mainly into London day schools, and one for boarding preps from where children mainly go on to boarding schools. There are also a number of ‘all-through schools’ which take children from pre-prep or prep age right through to 18. The international schools all fall into this category and can be an attractive option for parents wanting a degree of certainty about the child’s progression to senior school. Here, we are concerned primarily with ‘stand-alone’ prep schools, where children stay until the age of 11 or 13.

A good prep school will give your child a massive head start. Academically, children in a private prep school are often one or two years ahead of their counterparts in a state school. It therefore makes sense to look at enrolling your child in a prep school with the experience and track record of preparing children for entry into your target senior school. However, a key factor to consider is that a super selective senior school may not be the best fit for your child. Hanson urges parents to listen to the advice of the prep school. “They have years of experience of the type of child who would thrive at certain senior schools and the likely success at entry. The transition to senior school is all about finding the right fit.”

Of course, school should be about much more than academic results. For Tom Rogerson, Headmaster at Cottesmore School, a prep school must allow children to be themselves and ensure that they feel happy and secure. “A great prep school should help a child identify their strengths, for example the strength of Cottesmore’s academic programme lies within its breadth… There are 21 different curriculum subjects taught. Through this rich variety of intellectual experience, each girl and boy finds their particular strength and this in turn lifts their all-round potential. A fantastic array of activities and hobbies gives each individual pupil confidence, making strong academic results more achievable.” It is often in these vital areas beyond the classroom that the UK’s top private schools really excel.

So, what makes some prep schools so much more successful than others at ensuring that their leavers win places at the most prestigious and competitive senior schools? Surprisingly perhaps, it is not all about them being academically selective on entry, although the majority will want your child to pass an admissions test and these become more rigorous the older the child is. The other key factors that will mark out a highly successful prep school are:

  • A comprehensive understanding of the system and how to work it to your child’s advantage. In practice, this means that the headteacher is likely to have excellent links to senior school heads and admissions registrars and an in-depth knowledge of what they are looking for. In our experience as consultants this cannot be underestimated. Headmaster at Aldro, James Hanson says, “Top preps will work very hard to cultivate key relationships with registrars of senior schools. These trusted relationships allow them to really help the right pupils achieve their potential at entry.”
  • A focus on the development of the whole child. Contrary to popular belief, senior schools are not just looking for a string of A* grades. Schools want well-rounded children who are confident communicating with both adults and other children, and who will bring something special to the community whether through sport, art, drama or music. The best prep schools will provide your child with a wealth of opportunities to develop their talents and interests to a level where they can be considered for senior school scholarships. Rogerson says, “Our philosophy is simple – everyone has a talent. Some will find happiness in mathematics; some will find joy in dance – others perhaps in both! Whatever creative or academic outlet makes a child tick, Cottesmore finds and nurtures it.”
  • Most importantly of course, the best prep schools will give your child a rigorous academic education, providing a stimulating environment that will go well beyond the requirements of the UK National Curriculum. The best prep schools will offer a broad and exciting curriculum with small classes and excellent teaching, ensuring that children are well prepared for senior school entrance tests and Common Entrance.


The importance of forward planning can’t be overstated! To speak to an experienced adviser about your specific circumstances, call T: +44 1622 813870 or E: info@educationadvisers.co.uk quoting Diplomat for a free consultation. www.educationadvisers.co.uk  www.bestprepschools.co.uk

BOARDING OR DAY? Many parents living in London will prefer their child to be educated locally. It is important to bear in mind that most children in London day preps will be progressing to London senior schools. For international families who may not be living long-term in the UK it makes sense to look at preps that also prepare children for entry to boarding school at 13+.

There is no doubt that a boarding prep will offer the best possible preparation for your child to enter a top senior boarding school. For parents who often need to relocate, a boarding prep can offer educational and social stability for a child. There are also an increasing number of boarding preps that offer weekly boarding, so that children can return home at the weekends. The majority offer an escorted train or coach service to and from London.

COMMON ENTRANCE: ‘Common Entrance’ refers to a set of exams taken by children for entry to independent senior schools at 11+ or 13+. Common Entrance papers are set by the Independent Schools Examination Board but marked by the senior school the child has applied to. In reality, the senior school application process will have been going on for years before the child sits the Common Entrance exams and they are now used mainly to confirm places and to award scholarships to exceptional candidates.

PRE-TEST:The Common Pre-tests are online tests in Maths, English, Verbal and Non-Verbal Reasoning, taken when a child is in Year 6 and designed to enable senior schools to pre-select students for entry three years later into Year 9. Unlike  the Common Entrance papers, the Pre-test results can be shared with multiple prospective schools. Currently, over 40 senior schools, including some of the most academically selective, use the pre-test to make initial admissions decisions.


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