Why a preparatory school for 3–11s gives your child the best start in life

Posted on 12th Apr 2021 in School News, Prep Schools Guide

Helen Farrow, Deputy Head at Bury Catholic Preparatory School, compares the merits of Preparatory Schools from Nursery to Year 6.

High quality early learning has been consistently linked to positive outcomes for youth and adults. Young children who have positive early childhood educational experiences are more likely to achieve academic success, have higher graduation rates, demonstrate higher proficiency in maths and language skills, have better cognitive and social skills, and are more skilled at self-regulation. So making the right decision on a primary education provider is crucial to ensuring that your child receives the right kind of pastoral care while stretching your child’s mind to the fullest.

That said, choosing between a school that offers specialist primary years care or one that goes from nursery to A-level is not as simple as one may think, since the provision and ambitions of each are quite different. Below are some of the key factors to consider.

It begins with the right nursery…

Research shows that up to 90 percent of brain development happens in the first five years of life, setting the foundation for later learning and success in college, career and life. Unfortunately, most nurseries do not work to a curriculum-based learning regime that engages a young child’s multifaceted cognitive and sensory learning capacity since at four, children will leave to go to primary school. There is often a major ‘culture shock’ experienced by children (and parents) upon reaching reception class. An academic preparatory nursery prepares children for transition into reception by sparking their love of learning and monitoring their progress through numeracy and literacy benchmarks resulting in the vast majority being well above national averages before they even start primary school.

Large independent from 3–18 years or small prep school from 3–11 years?

At a 3–18 school a child goes all the way from nursery to A-levels without being moved. This means that until reaching the age of 18 the child is continually in the same environment with a smooth transition from primary to high school with little change or challenge.

At a prep school the entire focus is, as the name would suggest, on preparing the child for success in year 6 and beyond, instilling the key habits and knowledge within the very core of the child so as to set them up to achieve highly in the 11+ exams and subsequent interviews. This provides the structure for the Seven years from nursery to Year 6. In deliberately small classes, short term benchmarks are set for all-round performance, so that by year 5 a child is at the attainment level, socially and cognitively, necessary to achieve highly both in assessments and interactions.

Academic preparation from a very young age

Nursery to A-Level schools tend to have larger class sizes. They do adhere to high standards of teaching and like any school have the child’s best interest in sight but since High School is a foregone conclusion, the focus is on ongoing development rather than achieving highly to standards benchmarked against other schools. So there is very little in ways of comparison for parents to gauge their child’s performance at the 11+ stage since most children do not sit exams at other potential high schools.

A prep school’s teaching framework is based on the timescale within which they must identify, recognise and cater to the individual needs of each child to help them achieve their goals by year 6. This means classes are kept small (often 10-15!) to ensure teachers learn about each child very early on and create a robust learning package to help every child excel. Shared learnings with a variety of high schools allows preparatory management to create bespoke curriculums which include best practices from the education sector. More importantly, high schools are eager to maintain good working relationships with prep schools not only to ensure a good intake but also to aid in the ease of transition from primary to secondary.

Extra-curricular and Inter-personal skills development

Larger 3-18 schools often have more in terms of in-house extra-curricular activities and facilities to which easy access can benefit children greatly. At prep schools, children access these at external sites. While sometimes inconvenient, it does push children to be comfortable with unfamiliar environments and people, making them confident communicators. In fact, prep children are taken to visits of high schools in the region and are regularly invited to special occasions or productions, giving them the unique opportunity to experience a range of activities that they would not normally be able to avail. This gives them an early insight into secondary schools ahead of deciding which ones they would like to apply to in year 6.

Early acquisition of life-skills for the future

Of those nursery to A-Level Schools that do test the children entering from their own primary divisions, many have different pass grades or exams than for those being examined from external primaries and preps. Thus, a child that goes through a large independent school from 3–18 may not write an external exam until the age of 16 when they sit their GCSEs or take an interview until their University applications at 18.

At preps, by the time a child reaches Year 6 he has been well-prepared in a variety of examination skills (multiple choice, story-writing, maths long- and short-papers for example) and interview techniques alongside their thorough academic preparation. This affords them the confidence to take tests with ease and minimal stress showcasing their all-round ability to perform in the world as opposed to just a classroom from a very young age.

The option to apply for bursaries and scholarships

Another, more tangible reason why prep schools win out on large independents is that prep children are given the opportunity to apply for bursaries and scholarships at independent secondaries. These frequently result in significant reductions in fees (locked until GCSE or A-Level!). They are usually offered exclusively to new children entering High School at year 7, so unless there are compelling reasons, children coming up through a secondary school’s own primary division are not afforded this option.

A small independent preparatory school truly prepares your child for the future

At 11 years of age a prep child is able to compete with children from all over the region in varied settings and rules for each school. They can organise their thoughts and emotions and are able to establish a work-life discipline through a robust revision schedule that is exemplary and rarely seen in most adults. Furthermore, year 6 childrenare able to conduct themselves with such maturity to take external interviews and often (for scholarship/bursary applicants) verbatim exams, that would be daunting to the best of us. This preparation means that while most children at GCSE level are sitting their first external exams and are having to grapple with nerves, exam technique and revision, the prep school child can focus on developing their knowledge since they are well-equipped years in advance with the necessary skill set to thrive.

The beauty of the small-scale preparatory school system, aside from the rich, family-like community, is that the versatility accrued by a prep child (picking up and honing new cognitive, social, emotional and physical dexterity to use in the 11+) actually sets them up for the most important skills needed to go out in the world and make their mark.

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2021, which you can view here: