I keep getting asked by readers and clients if it is better to choose a pre-prep and focus on 7+ / 8+ exams, or a prep that goes all the way to 11+ or 13+. I was reminded of this debate on Sunday during a dinner with friends whose daughter is just preparing for her 11+ entrance exams to the North London Collegiate School (among others). I was telling them about my favourite choices (one of them a prep school, one an all-through school) and the father confided that if he could do it all over again, he would have never chosen a prep school and concentrated on finding a great all-through school from the start.
But before discussing preparatory schools versus all-through schools, let me explain a bit more in detail how you could make the choice between focusing on 7+/8+ versus 11+/13+ exams. First of all, there is the practical matter of senior school choice. What senior schools do you have in mind eventually, and what intakes do they have? For girls, prep schools till 11+ are the most common choice because there are very few top schools that have 7+ intakes – City of London and Bute House are the main ones, while the North London Collegiate School has 10 places at 7+. So unless you know you are aiming for these, it will usually make more sense to choose a prep school till 11+ for girls (which explains why you have a majority of boys in most pre-prep schools in London). For boys, the situation is rather different, as many top boys’ schools start at 7+ (such as Colet Court, Westminster Under, King’s College Wimbledon) or 8+ (such as Sussex House). Many parents who wish to send their sons to those schools as early as possible send their boys to pre-preps that prepare specifically for those entrance exams.
But beyond the matter of senior school choices, what else do you need to consider which is better for your child? It is impossible to say what is better overall, as it depends on the personality of your child (although this can be very hard to know in advance for a newborn) and your own preferences as a parent. Personally, I much prefer the 4-13 or 4-11 schools (or even the ones that go all the way 4-18). The problem I see with pure pre-preps is that the children start when they are almost 5 and then have less than 2 years before they have to sit stressful exams – in the pure pre-preps, they have very little time to settle in (one renowned pre-prep sets homework in the first week of Reception!) and then get into test preparation mode. At some pre-preps, children tend to get classified into “Westminster material” or not early on. I think this is very stressful for 6 year old children, who in other European countries would not even have started school yet. I know parents whose boys are doing the 7+ and they are very stressed out about it.
The advantage of the 7+ of course is that if it goes well, you are basically sorted and then don’t have to worry about it anymore. I would say for a native speaker who seems very advanced for his age it can work very well. From what I heard, for internationals who need some time to adjust to the new system, it is quite stressful to be facing the pressure of 7+ exams so fast, and rather than at Colet Court, they often end up entering other prep schools at 7+ or 8+ to try again at 13+, which means they would probably have been better off joining those same prep schools at 4+.
Then it depends on your ideal of education as well. What I like about the 4-13 approach is that these schools can take it a bit easier in the first years, do more sports and arts and music, and then they can just accelerate later when the children are ready. In my view, 6 year olds are supposed to run around and play and explore, not study for exams yet. But this is a personal view, I know some parents think children should learn to study hard to get ahead as fast as possible. And they worry that they miss the boat if the child takes it easy for too long. This is also a valid point, and again it will depend on the child. If they are happy to sit down and study, it can work, but if they are reluctant, the parents can have a very hard time.
Some people also like to tackle the issue from a statistical perspective and check at which entry point schools have the biggest intake (compared to the number of applicants). But again, it is hard to say if it is easier to get in at one level or the other because it just depends on how ready your child is compared to other children. And even if you can compare acceptance rates versus applicant numbers, it is hard to say if the quality of applicants at the different entry points is comparable.
Now that we know that a prep school till 11+/13+ may be less stressful than a pre-prep, of course that means an all-through school that does not require the child to take any entrance exams (after the 4+) can make your life even easier! The benefits of an all-through school are massive. The obvious one is that you have long-term certainty of a place and do not need to worry so much about what may happen during the 11+/13+ exam. It is true that children may still need to take the exam and reach a minimum standard to maintain their place at the senior school, but it is still far easier to score high enough to maintain your place than it is to score in the top 1% or 5% to get in at 11+. The main benefit I see beyond that is that children can actually learn much more. If they can spend most of their time on a balanced and rich curriculum, rather than spending most of Years 5 and 6 on Maths and English test papers, they probably end up better educated in the long run.
The only problem is that there aren’t actually that many all-through schools in Central London. For girls, there Queen’s Gate, Francis Holland, Putney High School, and South Hampstead High School (if you still want to call those central). If you look at co-educational ones, Highgate seems to be the most popular. Because many people see the benefit of an all-through school, these schools are actually particularly competitive to get into, even at the 4+ level.
Then of course you have the issue that they may be very good, but at the senior level many of them (North London Collegiate School aside) are not “the best”. So if you aim for “the best” school such as St Paul’s or Westminster, you might still prefer a prep school that will prepare a child for 11+ or 13+ entrance exams into the very top senior schools. In a way, if you choose an all-through school that is number 10 in London (see here for a ranking of London Day Schools by A-Level results), you settle for the number 10 and give up the option of sending your child to the number 1. This is a very valid argument, but I wonder how relevant really is it to attend the number 1 instead of number 10? Of course, you could say if your child is brilliant and exceptional, they really need to be at number 1. But in my experience, many more people aim to send their child to the number 1 school, not just those whose children really are so far off the charts that they have to be at St Paul’s and nowhere else. And even if your child is so exceptional that even the number 5 or 10 among London Day Schools is not good enough, you could probably argue they would get in eventually anyway, regardless of attending a prep school or not.
So as you can see, I am really warming up to the idea of avoiding prep schools and the whole 11+ exam preparation process. In my case, it is a bit more complicated because the prep school is within walking distance, while the all-through school is a 15 minute drive away. Prep schools also differ in terms of how much curriculum time they dedicate to exam preparation, and some can be far more tedious than others. It’s worth asking a school how they do 11+ preparation during your school visits.
To all those currently preparing their kids for 4+ / 7+ / 8+ / 11+ exams in January, best of luck and don’t stress too much! As my friend’s daughter tells her mum: “Don’t worry, mummy, I can handle this!”. It is usually the parents who are more stressed than the children!
You may also want to read All you need to know about the 7+ exam!