Prep schools: how to get started
Choosing a school can be a bewildering process, particularly in countries like the UK with very complex and long-established educational systems. Prep schools are a very important element in this picture, but what can they offer you, and what questions do you need to ask if you’re considering this option? Winter’s investigates…
Prep, or preparatory schools, have a long and rich history which is no longer confined to the United Kingdom – they can now be found all over the world, from New York to Lagos, Beijing to Geneva. But the UK has the largest prep school sector, and it’s a choice that you’ll be especially keen to understand if you’re moving to the UK. If you’re thinking of moving schools within the country then this short introduction to prep schools – with links onwards to direct you to more information – may also be helpful. As with every facet of education, there’s a bewildering array of information about prep schools available online, so it can be useful to take a step back.
"…prep schools can now be found all over the world…"
The first point to make is that prep schools are just as varied as any other kind of school – and indeed, because of their history, and the strong spirit of independence that’s characteristic of so many prep schools, this diversity is especially rich. A prep school is an independent, selective school - the equivalent of a primary or middle school in the UK state sector. But once that’s been said the range of prep schools is huge: some are co-educational while others are for boys or girls only; some are day schools, boarding schools, flexi-boarding, or other combinations; some are linked to specific senior schools, and so on.
All this means that the choice that’s available to parents is very considerable. This brings all the benefits that you’d expect, but it also makes the process of choosing the right school a complex one. In this respect prep schools are no different to any other school: making the right choice is critical for every family and involves a series of steps. The good news is that these steps can be clearly identified and broken down, and among Head teachers and other educational specialists there’s wide agreement on the best way to proceed when you’re choosing a school.
"There’s now a vast range of information online about all schools, and prep schools are no different…"
Just as the options can be overwhelming, so the information available to parents can also be as much of a problem as a help. There’s now a vast range of information online about all schools, and prep schools are no different. While this is an advantage to parents in many ways, it’s also led to new problems. What are the best sources of information? How can you know what to trust? How can you decide what to place your faith in, and what to discard? It’s a much more serious version of the problem everyone’s familiar with when they start to research a product online. The web will be full of other people’s opinions, some of them praising that product and some of them complaining about it. But who do you trust? Added to that, the longer you look, the more you discover what seem like important criteria that you’d never even thought about. When it comes to finding the right school, all these issues loom even larger, and are so much more important.
As all experts in the field will stress, the starting point has to be a clear sense of your own priorities and what you really think is important in a new school. If you’re considering a prep school, you need to begin with this process of careful reflection. On our site, we’ve developed a wide range of articles to help parents think about what it is that they want from a school. You can read advice from head teachers, educational experts and other parents about the questions you should ask yourself. Once you’ve done this you’ll be on much firmer ground.
"If you’re considering a prep school, you need to begin with this process of careful reflection…"
If you’re thinking about a prep school you need to ask yourself all these questions: what’s most important to you and your child? Does your child have any particular needs that have to drive your choice? What are the indispensable qualities that you want in a school, and what are the things that are not as critical? How do you see the path of your child’s education after prep school?
Head teachers and specialists in the field of international education also tend to agree on the importance of the last step – visiting the school! This is more crucial than anything else, and you’ll often read the same piece of advice: trust your feelings. But what happens between the first and last stages in the process? This is your school search, and this is in many ways the most difficult stage.
Here at Winter's you can search for prep schools by location and then compare the available schools through a set of standard information. This makes everything much simpler: you can cut through the maze of data to really see what your options are. Then you can begin to refine your choice, and make use of schools’ own websites in the most informed way. You’ll find that prep schools’ own websites offer you a great deal of information – and what’s at least as valuable, a real flavour of life at these schools.
"Exploring the IAPS site will help you to understand what you should expect from a prep school…"
Lastly, when choosing a school, anything that helps to give you a solid, objective point of view is invaluable. In this respect a school’s accreditations are critical, and this is something you’ll want to investigate very closely, finding out about the organisations that a school belongs to.
The website for the Independent Association of Prep Schools is an excellent resource to consult, as all the schools that belong to IAPS have to measure up to a series of demanding standards. Exploring this site will help you to understand what you should expect from a prep school.
This extract from the site’s guidance material will give you a sense of what organisations like IAPS require of their members: ‘By being granted the IAPS kitemark of quality, your child’s school has made a commitment to maintaining excellent standards. This includes guaranteeing ongoing training for both the head teacher and school staff; keeping up-to-date with new legislation and policy guidance; sharing best practice with other schools both in the UK and worldwide; and above all promising to deliver superior standards of education and care.’
You can find out a lot more about schools in the UK here on the Winter’s site. Good luck as you move through the process of finding the prep school that’s right for you: remember that all schools will be delighted to help you with any questions you might have at every stage in the process. And although choosing the right school is a demanding exercise, it doesn’t have to be a chore. Once you’re on the way with your enquiries you’ll start to get a real pleasure from finding out about all these great schools and what they can offer your child.
Article published October 2017.
Photographs courtesy of the following Winter's schools:
Casterton, Sedbergh Preparatory School (top image)