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Applying to prep schools for your child: what you need to know

The journey through the British education system can be something of a maze when you are first confronted...

3 years ago

The journey through the British education system can be something of a maze when you are first confronted with it as a parent. One of the first decisions you will need to make is which primary or preparatory school your child should attend. This may seem a simple choice but before long you will be confronted with what can appear to be several very bewildering decisions.

Primary or prep? What is the difference? Do children have to pass an exam or do an interview? In this article we will try to answer all these questions and more, thereby helping you to feel better equipped to plan effectively and make the right decisions for your child. The Scholato website is also here to help. You can discover schools according to your child’s date of birth and your postcode and receive useful reminders about open days and registration dates.

Are primary and pre-preparatory / preparatory schools the same?

Whilst this article will be focusing on pre-preparatory / preparatory schools (commonly referred to as pre-prep and prep) it is important to clarify that there is a difference between a prep school and a primary school.

Primary is a term used by the state system and a primary school covers the year groups for children between 4-11 years old (Reception to Year 6). A prep school is a term used by the independent sector. Many prep schools are seamlessly linked with a pre-prep and together will take children from age 4 through to 11 or 13 (Year 7 or Year 9), with the prep school starting at age 7 or 8 (Year 3 or Year 4).

For both a primary and a prep school the academic year is the same. Starting in September there are three terms which are generally referred to as the autumn term, spring term and summer term. The academic year then ends in July at the close of the summer term.

When should a child start at prep school?

At a pre-prep, children start in Reception (4+) in the September after their fourth birthday. For example, if your child was born in November 2021, they would start Reception in September 2026. The traditional points for entry into a prep school after 4+ are 7+ (Year 3) or 8+ (Year 4).

It is possible to enter a school at other stages of the academic year or at non-standard entry points like those just mentioned, however this would be dependent on places becoming available for a child to apply for. These are known as ‘occasional places’.

There is often a question over summer-born children. If your child is born in August 2022 for example, they will be one of the youngest in their year of Reception in September 2026 – the same year as the November 2021 born child we referred to earlier. 

If you have concerns that your summer-born child may not be ready to start Reception, talk to your nursery and proposed pre-prep schools. In the countryside, more often than not, schools can be flexible on the start date. However, for many in London they have to be quite rigid on which year your child goes into. They will be keeping in mind that further down the line your chosen prep or senior school may simply not accept children in the year below their correct year group.

The Admissions process

The admissions procedure is the next hurdle to overcome when considering a prep school. With lots of key dates such as registration deadlines, examination dates and open days, it can seem quite overwhelming. Below we will try to give you a clear overview of the main steps for the three main points of entry.

When should I register my child?

Many of the schools have similar registration deadlines but you should always check on your Scholato timeline or with the school itself. 

To register you will need to fill out a registration form and there will also be a non-refundable registration fee ranging from £50 – £200.

When it comes to when to register, there is a small handful of London prep schools asking for registrations at birth but thankfully this is increasingly rare! The summary below covers the general deadlines for the majority of schools.

  • 4+ entry (Reception): Schools usually ask that you register by the September before your child’s year of entry i.e. if you would like them to join in September 2023, then you will need to register them by September 2022.
  • 7+ and 8+ entry (Year 3 and 4): Even at the highly competitive London days school for 7+ and 8+ you are looking at a registration deadline of September prior to the year of entry. 

When should I visit the prep schools?

With so many questions to ask and options to consider, visiting a prep school is the best way to get your answers and narrow down your child’s options. Schools will offer visits in a few formats; open mornings, group tours or individual tours. At an open morning you will often see a variety of classrooms, hear from the senior leadership team and have a Q&A session. If you have a pupil-led tour then do ask plenty of questions as you will inevitably receive very honest answers about the facilities, teachers and of course the food!

The best time to visit is before you have to register therefore a year before entry at the latest. If you can visit earlier then do so you have plenty of time to compare options and ask any follow up questions to the school that you may have. 

For the London schools that have a significant number of applicants, they will more often than not have set visit dates allocated to your child’s cohort. Whilst this can be slightly constricting, your visit will be tailored to your son or daughter’s entry point and you will also be visiting with those that may become your son or daughter’s classmates and their parents.

Will my child have to sit an exam or be interviewed?

The entry requirements vary at each prep school and year of entry but below is a general overview for the three main entry points. We also explain the different entrance examinations in more details here.

  • 4+ entry: For the schools that do choose to assess, the September or January before entry are the usual dates to do so (September 2022 or January 2023 for September 2023 entry for example). These assessments are kept short and fairly informal with children often in groups. The school will be looking for confidence from your child, a willingness to corporate and their ability to communicate.
  • 7+ and 8+ entry: Assessments for both age groups will be through age-appropriate activities or exams which will likely include maths, English and problem-solving. Some schools will also interview your child either one-on-one or in a group setting, these details will be provided to you well in advance.  The assessments procedure will start in the September or January prior to entry. 

Even for the non-selective schools with no examinations taking place, it should be expected that the school will request a report from your child’s current school/nursery.

Should I help them prepare? 

As we constantly hear how competitive gaining entry into a school is, the various exams and interview that take place, the wait lists etc. it is no wonder parents want to prepare their child in any way they can.  However, it is crucial to remember that prep schools do stress that they do not want to see over prepared children. They want to get a true idea of what your child is like, their personality and confidence at not necessarily just their outstanding maths score.  

Particularly if your child is already at a pre-prep then the first step would be to speak to them. They will be preparing them for these assessments already and can advise you on areas your child may need additional help on. 

If you are considering tuition for your child, then there are many reputable tuition companies you can use. For 7/8+ entry, two hours a week should be seen as the maximum amount of time allocated to extra preparation. For the youngest entry point of 4+, tuition should only be considered if English is not the child’s first language. Even then any tuition should be focused on spending time with a native English speaker encouraging your child to be confident in communicating in English.  

There are also several websites with many helpful resources and educational games that can help familiarise children with problem-solving questions or age-appropriate maths and English tests.  

How much do prep schools cost?

Fees will vary depending on which year your child is in and whether it is a boarding or day place. For a day place, the cost will be around £6,000 – £7,000 a term and around £8,000 – 9,000 per term for a boarding place. The London school fees do tend to be slightly higher than the rest of the country in the region of £7,000 – £8,000 per term for a day place.

There are also other additional costs to consider; school uniform, music lessons, learning support or additional sports coaching.

Almost all independent schools proudly offer scholarships and/or bursaries so it is always worth contacting the school for further details. Bursaries are becoming more commonplace and although scholarships are still offered they do not always offer the financial discounts that you might remember from your school days.

There is a lot to consider when applying to a prep school and there is so much choice with tremendous schools to suit every child. We hope this article has been useful, raised questions to help you narrow down your options and provided a breakdown of the general process of applying. If you would like to see a list of UK prep schools in your area you can use our school finder tool.

It is worth noting that schools have had to adapt their admissions processes greatly in the past year. Open mornings became virtual tours, interviews took place over Skype and the type of assessments taken changed to ensure they could be taken at home online. Do keep an eye on both Scholato and the schools’ websites for the current processes as these temporary changes may become permanent. 

About the author: Georgina Lesmoir-Gordon has been an educational consultant with Bonas MacFarlane for over six years. She has advised many families from the UK and overseas on every step of the school entrance process. 


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