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Prep schools – moving at age 11 or 13 debate

Singing the praises of prep schools! The moving school at age 11 or 13 debate

Before becoming an education consultant 14 years ago, I worked for 13 years as both a teacher and housemistress in independent day and boarding schools. I hope you will feel this gives me a fairly balanced, independent view when it comes to advising parents on choosing the right school for your child as an individual. I have experienced the lay of the land, from both angles. I talk to and visit many UK schools each year, all over the country. The days I look forward to the most are the ones I spend getting to know prep schools and working with prep school parents and their children.

One of the main dilemmas many face, is do I move on to senior school at age 11 or 13? Our Future Schools team are very happy to work with you to help make this decision and to prepare your son or daughter for entrance assessments and interviews.

Evaluating my evidence of visiting lots of schools and talking to hundreds of parents, it’s my view that prep schools do indeed specialise in challenging and nurturing children up to age 13. Expectations are high when it comes to academic attainment, responsibility and leadership, particularly in years 7 and 8. Pupils have access to committed, knowledgeable staff, who are passionate about teaching and inspiring children at this age. They are not prioritising their A level or GCSE classes or spending time writing references or assisting with University personal statements, while also teaching a few year 7 or 8 classes to ‘keep their hand in with the little ones’. They are specialists in 5-13 education.

For the same reasons you would not seek legal advice from an accountant who knows a little bit about the law, your child needs access to the best experts, to support their education at each stage. The holy grail if you like, and hence the key focus for a senior school is to seek recognition for its GCSE, A level or IB results or entries to Oxbridge and Russell Group Universities. A prep school, on the other hand, seeks recognition by securing a place, with scholarship where appropriate, for each child at their first-choice senior school. So, in staying on at prep for years 7 and 8, your child’s success is one of the school’s key priorities during those two important years, whereas in a senior school they might perhaps have less of a key focus.

Prep schools by their very definition prepare children for senior school, so why would you take your child away part way through this tried and tested preparation process? In a nutshell, if your child is happy, challenged or supported academically and well-settled into prep school life, why rock the boat before you have to? In other words, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!

We work with a number of prep school families each year to assist them with their choices when transferring to senior school. On a day-to-day basis, we talk to many senior schools about this process. In my experience, rarely do the senior schools, which put the interests of children before their own recruitment objectives, encourage a child to leave their prep school at age 11, even if they have an intake of children at both 11+ and 13+. Unless there are sensible reasons for a move at age 11, most senior schools recognise the importance of years 7 and 8 in a prep school. Their 11+ intake exists mainly for children who are joining them from state primary schools or from London preps which finish at age 11, expats returning home or international families wishing to access UK education from overseas.

I was recently at a 13+ pre-assessment day for a well-known academic all girls’ senior boarding school. The Headmistress clearly outlined the huge value to the school community that she sees in their intake of children from prep schools at 13+. To support this, two girls stood up and spoke about their very positive experiences of joining the school at 13+. They had only been at the school for 3 weeks but presented confidently and eloquently to a fairly large audience of parents. It is my view that their ability to do this was down to the skills they gained during years 7 and 8 at their prep school, not from their 3 weeks at their new senior school!

Similarly, I recently had a conversation about this with a well-known co-ed boarding school which has an intake at 11+ and 13+. They actively discourage parents from moving at 11, if staying at prep until 13 is an option. They trust and value highly the job their feeder prep schools do to prepare children for senior school during years 7 and 8, for all the reasons already outlined to you. Like most other HMC senior schools, they do not believe children are better off joining them at 11, unless circumstances mean they have to.

To give a balanced and independent perspective on this question, why might you consider a move to senior school at 11 instead of waiting until 13?

From experience working with prep school families, the ones where a move at 11 usually proves to be the best transition route are as follows:

1. Firstly, parents have limited funds, so chose to invest in solid foundations at prep school level and plan to move into the state system at senior school. Places at grammar or good senior state schools at age 13 are almost non-existent, so a move at 11 is usually the safest way to achieve this. If this is your plan, don’t forget you also have the option to get advice from your prep school Head about whether they feel a scholarship or means tested bursary to independent senior schools might be an option for you. This would possibly allow you to delay your prep to senior school move to 13. Discuss this well in advance, as senior schools allocate their bursary budgets well ahead. 16+ entries to grammar or state sixth form is also an option to delay your move out of the independent sector.

2. Secondly, though the move is usually in the opposite direction, for the rare few who might be considering London day senior school options, it’s my view that this is best handled at age 11 along with the entrants from London preps, which often finish at age 11. Many do offer entry at 13+ but places are more limited and competition is strong.

3. Thirdly, your child has struggled to settle within their peer group for what can be a whole range of reasons, so you feel a change of scene will be in their best interests. If your child is finding things tricky in their peer group, moving school should always be the last solution. Before you consider this, work with the school to discuss your concerns and make a plan to address them together.

4. Lastly, siblings and school run logistics mean moving a younger child at 11 could make things simpler. If this is the situation you find yourself in, I would suggest looking at school bus routes to and from senior schools or even better, considering boarding at prep in years 7 and 8. Not only will this prepare your child better for boarding at senior school at age 13, it’s a far better solution to making school run and other family logistics such as homework and both parents’ weekday work commitments easier.

In conclusion, when considering whether to move your child to senior school at age 11 or 13, try not to be steered too much by school gate and dinner party chatter. Instead, form your own independent view as to the educational and pastoral needs of your child as an individual and make a decision on choosing the right school for your child l, at the right time, based on what your gut feeling tells you is right for them.

Take senior school ‘marketing speak’ with a pinch of salt. Instead, listen to the advice of your prep school Head, who knows your child backwards and will give you the best advice, as relevant to your individual circumstances as a family. Sometimes it might be to consider moving at 11, but more often than not, it will be to stay until 13 and see your child grow in confidence both academically and socially during what should be the best two years of their prep school life at the top of the tree.

Listed below are website links to few a boarding prep schools our team of consultants have recently visited. Farleigh School Cottesmore Aysgarth School Windlesham House

For advice on choosing the right school for your child contact us today.

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