Finding the right prep school is one of the most important decisions parents can make, says Michelle Botha of Portland Place School
“Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality,” Beatrix Potter once said. But schooling has changed tremendously since Beatrix Potter’s days. Gone is the archaic view of pupils being seen and not heard – pupils are treated as the individuals that they are. Modern classrooms use interactive technology and pupils are taught to question. They discover their individual interests in lessons and through extracurricular opportunities. An exciting education that nurtures, challenges and requires commitment gives pupils confidence to tackle the more daunting subjects in which they may struggle. These pupils develop into well-rounded and resilient individuals with skills that will stay with them throughout their adult lives.
Some prep schools have a stringent exam focus with the 11+ taking precedence over their Year 6. This is suited to some children but not every 10 year old is ready to face those pressures. While we all want our children to succeed, it is their enjoyment and curiosity to learn that will give them an edge in a future where knowledge and skills become obsolete very quickly. When selecting a junior or prep school, parents should bear in mind a number of factors: their child’s disposition and interests, the type of education they want them to experience (traditional, modern, single sex, co-ed) and whether the whole family is ready to embrace the pressures of 11+ exams. For parents who are concerned about these pressures, the answer may be a school that provides prep, senior and sixth form education. Here, the 11+ examinations do not need to be the main focus of teaching. While academic standards and progress are a major focus, removing entrance exams allows the emphasis in the classroom to be on progress and development of individual pupils.
The use of interactive tools to deliver lessons is incredibly important. Today’s prep generation are innate users of technology, born into a world of instant access to knowledge. Teaching must reflect this. Conversely, one of our biggest concerns is the sedentary nature of working with technology so a balance of health and fitness is vital. We don’t know what future jobs will look like – they most probably do not exist yet. Instilling adaptability and creativity sets the next generation up as entrepreneurs.
Music also provides opportunities for creativity. Studies show that pupils who learn to play an instrument at a young age help their wider development. Actively engaging in music classes provides great cognitive benefits linked to mathematical and literacy improvement – key areas assessed in the 11+ assessments.
How to choose the right school for your child
• Attending an open morning during the school day is a good way to gauge a true reflection of the day-to-day activities in school. Alternatively some schools offer individual appointments with the Head. Parents with questions specific to their child may benefit from this opportunity.
• Small indicators, such as the manner in which you are welcomed into the main school office, can speak volumes. It may be the first place pupils will come if they’re feeling unwell or anxious. A warm and friendly welcome can help pupils ease into a new environment.
• Ask about taster days. Choosing the right school is as much about the pupil assessing the school as it is the school assessing the child, and the process of spending the day gives them the ability to immerse themselves in the routine.
• Check the academic outcomes, as well as the school and university destinations of former pupils.
• Small lessons with specialist teachers and in-class support can develop pupils’ confidence. With that confidence, they will try new opportunities they may have previously passed up. Self-worth and self-belief are amongst the best traits you can teach a child and will stay with them in their future endeavours.
Need to know
Make notes of your questions to ask on a visit. Parents have different priorities based on family circumstance. Questions may include:
• Is the school co-educational?
• What extra-curricular activities and clubs are offered?
• What sports facilities are available to pupils?
• What range of subjects are available?
• Is technology integrated into the teaching?
• Is there a senior school?
• How are pupils prepared for examinations?
• How are pupils assessed for entrance?
When visiting the school on an open day, be sure to:
• Interact with the pupils.
• Check the location and travel distance of the school.
• Find out what pastoral support is offered to pupils. The real benefits in a small environment are only felt when the right support is in place to help pupils who need a little extra nurturing.