Prepared for life - how prep schools aim for a bright future and broad horizon

Posted on 23rd Oct 2015 in Prep Schools Guide

Angela Drew, Headmistress of Bromley High School, says the best prep and junior schools are driven by moral conviction

“We may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but we can at least prepare our children for the future.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

What draws a new generation of parents to prep and independent junior schools in ever increasing numbers? I think it is an appreciation that the breadth and depth of an independent education from an early age is not simply the best grounding for examination success in senior school but the best foundation for lifelong learning. 

Many parents will recognise in their own professional lives that the world of adult employment no longer follows a comfortably predictable pattern. The most interesting and fulfilling careers are ones where no two days will present exactly the same challenges and we all now expect to constantly adapt and re-train throughout our working lives. What is required from young people entering the 21st century labour market is not the knowledge of an empirically defined and unchanging set of facts but an aptitude for flexibility and an attitude of mind which is open to new learning. The ethos and curriculum in an independent prep or junior school embeds that flexibility and open-mindedness from an early age. 

One of the greatest benefits of freedom from the constraints of the national curriculum is the capacity to be quirky and original. The headmaster of one of our local boys’ prep schools was recently given a gift of some bee hives by a parent. My 4-18 girls’ school has an expansive 25-acre site; so the bees are now installed in the far corner of one of our fields and the prep boys and junior girls are working together to produce their first crop of honey. This freedom to be serendipitous, to be opportunistic and entrepreneurial in exploiting new experiences for pupils distinguishes the prep school curriculum from that of the state sector with its strict adherence to literacy hour and the like.

In the recent past, the values of prep and independent junior schools with their emphasis on smart dress and courteous and considerate manners may have appeared outdated or even counter-cultural. Now, in a visual age where personal presentation, effective communication and skills in social interaction are increasingly valued in the workplace and where the lack of those skills is apparent all around us, the importance of reinforcing basic good manners: a friendly handshake, good eye contact, a pleasant smile and a sincere thank you – is unquestionable. Further than that is the unquestionably old fashioned interest that our schools have in the development of ‘character’ but there is to me no idea more cutting edge in education than the creation of character. This is a turbulent world where the teenage years can be tough for our young people: Confidence, Composure, Courage and Commitment – qualities embedded in the junior years – will build the resilience youngsters require to thrive, and yes, to lead, in the modern world. 

Very many of the new initiatives in education reflect the traditions maintained in prep and independent junior schools over generations. The drive for sport for all in the wake of the Olympic Games was in part a recognition of the number of British Olympians who traced their love of sport to the inspiration of excellent early coaching in our schools. Our unashamed emphasis on competitive team sport is now recognised as a vital element in every child’s early education because it not only teaches children the art of winning and losing with good grace, it lays the foundation for a lifetime of mental and physical well being through a lifelong love of physical activity. Many prep schools are blessed with idyllic grounds where children develop a natural love of the outdoors and junior schools like ours here at Bromley High have established forest schools where boys and girls in bright coloured wellies can exercise their fascination with mud and creepy crawlies and toast marshmallows and listen to stories around the camp fire.

Prep and independent junior schools take small children seriously. We all have in our ranks the grade 8 pianist or the exceptional gymnast, mathematician or chess player who pulls us up short reminding us of the extraordinary levels of talent that are apparent in very young children. I was taken aback this term when interviewing a diminutive ten year old girl for a place in the senior school. When she said that she enjoyed running, I enquired what was her best distance. “Definitely the 5k,” she replied confidently. When I was at senior school in the 1970s and 80s, I can’t recall girls’ athletics ever extending much beyond the 800 metres except, perhaps, where girls got deliberately lost on the annual penitential saunter that was my school’s cross country. The key advantage of prep schools is that they offer an extraordinary breadth of opportunity to nurture and develop ability and potential but within a pastoral structure designed to support the individual child’s development – not pushing too hard or too soon; devoting as much time to drawing out the child who is yet to find her special niche as to the child whose talents are already exceptional.

Contemporary and outward and forward-looking, the best prep and junior schools are driven by moral conviction not by the pressure to react to each successive political initiative or accountability measure. We value the less tangible and precious fruits of encouraging an early enthusiasm for ideas and intellectual inquiry in our pupils; we celebrate the long term benefits of generating a capacity for reflection, empathy and openness of spirit in our young pupils. We lavish inordinate care on creating assemblies that will inspire children to engage with world events; we establish structures which allow children to express their natural kindness and compassion in charitable activities; we create space for spiritual development.

In prep and independent junior schools, our teachers encourage children to look to the bright future and the broad horizon and that is where we, as school leaders, will continue to focus our gaze.

For more information about Bromley High School, click here.