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State Primary or Private Preparatory School

What is the difference between private and state schools?

In simple terms private schools cater for ages 3 up to 18 and parents must pay termly fees charged by the school. State schools cater for ages 4 up to age 18 and are free to UK  citizens (plus EU for the moment subject to the outcome of Brexit in 2019). In practice other International residents with UK visas can also apply for state schools.

Private schools can generally be expected to achieve superior exam results at 16 and 18 with a significant proportion of leaving pupils going on to University.

For SEN children there are different considerations. Specialist private SEN schools can have outstanding learning provision with a number of staff specifically qualified in SEN teaching. However they can be extremely expensive. Mainstream private schools will usually consider SEN children with mild SEN conditions, but not if they disrupt the classroom. State schools are obligated to take SEN children, but may not have sufficient specialised learning support.

Which schools can you choose?

With state schools you can only apply to 3 preferred schools if you live in their eligibility area and in major cities like London these areas of residence can be very small geographically – sometimes as small as a radius of 250 metres in Central London.  Furthermore the allocation is done by the Local Education Authority and there will typically be too high a demand for highly ranked or faith schools resulting in many parents being given alternatives. For private schools there is no catchment area as such. The location is determined by how far a parent is prepared to do the school run on time each day. However, be aware that private school pupils often stay late to participate in extra curricular activities or even say to do homework – thus the journey to collect children from school can result in a very long day.

Availability of places?

Increasing birth rates and immigration have placed huge pressures on the state sector for junior ages. In 2018, 60% of local authorities will have a shortfall of local primary places. In 2017 it is estimated that there were 4.5 million children in state primaries with a deficiency of 155,000 places. However, it is not just the absolute numbers which cause concern. In London two thirds of children were born to families where one or more parents were non UK born. In addition it is reckoned that 10,000 immigrant children of primary age are being admitted to UK state schools each year. In turn this is placing huge pressure on classes where sometimes a substantial proportion of children speak limited English. The situation is most acute in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Kent.

The result is a mad scramble by parents for state primaries for well ranked schools which become very oversubscribed, with non admitted children being reallocated often to schools not desired by parents. One problem is that 18% of the total 16,700 primaries are rated as inadequate or requiring improvement.

In contrast to the state sector’s 16,700 primaries , the private sector has around 1,800 preps by our definition (we exclude small schools and those who do not cover the range 7 to 11 years old). However there is still quite a lot of space availability because the private sector is basically influenced on parents’ ability to pay. Schools will discount fees to fill available places. However in Greater London availability is much more acute, with well ranked private schools sometimes demanding applications several years in advance and running large waiting lists.

What is the difference in admissions process?

According to the Independent Schools Council, around half of private schools are non selective. However, this is an over simplistic statement. Up to age 6, most private schools will require an interview and maybe a half day’s observation in a class. After age 7 a significant percentage of schools are now demanding simple English, Maths or Non Verbal reasoning tests and these get stricter the more “in demand” the prep school is and the older the child. Most parents send their children to a private prep school in order to be prepared for the admissions requirements of good academic senior schools. So we rank prep schools by their successful leaver destinations. This in turn means these schools may want to limit admissions to children with good academic potential.

In the state sector there is not typically an interview process other than the child and parents meeting the Head. At the end of the day a state primary is obligated to take a certain number of children allocated by the Local Education Authority. A Head may want to expel a child for bad behaviour, but is sometimes undermined by the LEA saying there is nowhere else for the child to go. In the private sector an expulsion is an expulsion! We can often find replacement schools but not always in the most desired area because of the much smaller number of private preps and the fact they may decline an unruly child or one with an unsatisfactory school report.

How to choose schools by their academic success

We are well known for producing private school league tables based on academic results. However in the private prep school sector, less than a third of schools publicise SATS tests . Many preps have abandoned these tests. The National Press who publish such prep school tables seem oblivious to the fact that they are meaningless! As mentioned elsewhere, we prefer to rank schools by their success in securing good senior school places and scholarships. The pupils in most preps are going to sit senior school admissions tests at 10 or 12, whether this are the Common Entrance tests (managed by ISEB) or similar versions set by the target senior school. There are no published results for such tests, partly because different schools set different pass scores and so the measure of success is whether the target senior school accepts the child.

State primaries all sit Year 6 Sats exams in English and Maths, which are eventually published locally or nationally. This in turn tends to make primaries compete with each other purely on English and Maths results. So it possible to find out the best scores in your area, but it does not necessarily help you get a place there.

Some counties in England still have free state grammar schools for seniors where the sixth form exam successes can sometimes match or beat private senior schools. Competition for such schools in generally high and there are a few private preps who target getting their pupils into state grammars.

If you need a top academic education, talk to us first because we have a unique “education for life” approach mapping out the preferred schools all the way to top university entrance.

Strategies by financial means or academic ability

Many parents have to choose a school based on their ability to pay, especially when private preps are not cheap. Thus some parents choose a strategy of using state education up to age 11 and then switch to private, when the benefits of more intensive teaching in smaller classes become more important. This can be a perfectly sound financial strategy, but in our experience, children in state primaries tend to be 6 to 12 months behind comparable ages in private schools. Much of this is down to intensive prepping specifically for the entrance tests by private schools. Another contributory factor would be the willingness of affluent parents to employ personal tutors specifically for such tests. See also the comments in the previous section about using a private prep route to apply to state grammars.

Is the curriculum the same in private v. state?

State school children will follow the UK National Curriculum. Private preps are not obligated to follow any curriculum but they are likely to follow a version of the National Curriculum but with different emphasis.

State primaries are judged on their English and Maths results and will therefore prioritise them. Private preps have much more resource and can offer a more diverse curriculum including sport, music, drama, art and foreign languages. Private preps have longer hours, partly offset by longer holidays. They probably spend less actual tuition time on Maths and English, but still achieve superior test scores on private senior school admissions. State schools generally have a narrower curriculum because of their lesser facilities, which means their pupils are less likely to impress in senior schools admissions, where excellence in sport, music and drama can not only help admission but also win scholarships.

So how do you choose between private and state?

If you cannot afford a private prep school, you may have little choice, but do bear in mind there can be substantial bursaries and scholarships in most prep schools.

We are inevitably more inclined to private schools because our business focuses entirely on finding the best private school and we do not advise on choice of state schools. Nevertheless we are impartial and honest in all of our assignments for parents. Do not be afraid to ask for our help even if you have a restricted budget. Phone us on +44 1622 813870.


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