For most internationals arriving in London, the first confusing terminology to come to grips with is the term public school. Particularly for Americans, using the term public school for what is in fact a private school is counterintuitive to say the least. I assume most people who have arrived here know by now that public schools are in fact private schools, and are more commonly referred to as independent schools. This is opposed to state schools, which are run by the councils, or boroughs if you are in London.
The next important distinction, and one that some expats realise too late after their kids have already started at a London private school, is the one between an independent school and a preparatory school. Simply put, a private or independent school is ANY school that is not a state school, funded in part by fees paid by the pupils’ parents. There are private pre-schools, private primary schools, secondary schools and overall private schools that run from Reception to GCSE or A-level age (examples of these in London would be South Hampstead High School, Putney High or the Royal School Hampstead).
Preparatory schools are a subset of independent primary schools that PREPARE pupils for exams, hence the name. The exams they most commonly prepare for are the 7+/8+ exam in the case of pre-preparatory schools. This is the exam for admission to PREPARATORY schools. The preparatory schools in turn will most typically prepare pupils for the 11+ and 13+ exams, which are competitive entrance exams for entry to leading independent day and boarding schools.
The key to deciding for or against a preparatory school is what your further plans beyond primary school for your child are. A big advantage of a private school that is not preparatory is that all time is spent on real learning and personal development, rather than exam preparation. Preparatory schools will dedicate particular curriculum time to improve pupils’ performance in test taking, verbal reasoning and the like, time that they do not spend on classroom discussion, reading or extracurricular activities. If you are very happy with the current school and your child is thriving there, you might enjoy the long-term nature of knowing your child develops at his own pace, without continuous exam pressure, with freedom to explore different interests.
The advantage of a preparatory school is that it makes switching schools easier, so if you have a particular senior school in mind that you think is best for your child, you may want to make sure your child is prepared for the entrance procedure at such a school. Particularly if you like the idea of your child attending a leading Boarding School in the future, you will appreciate the dedicated effort a preparatory school is going to make in placing your child at the boarding school of choice.
I think there is an argument to be made for private schools that are not preparatory in nature, but since they are designed for those who do not intend to switch schools at a later stage, I would argue that very high quality of the school is absolute key to minimise the chances that you may need to take your child out of the school at some point in the future . I’d be very interested to hear what other parents think, especially those who decided against the preparatory school route.