Navigating the maze of schooling from nursery to prep


This is particularly the case for independent schools. The Independent School Council (ISC) reports that there are now 511,928 children enrolled at 1,257 ISC schools offering a private school education. For families who are enrolling their child in the independent system, the process of applying to schools is time-sensitive in terms of when applications should be lodged. With different admissions procedures and documentation required for different schools, working your way through schooling choices and admissions processes is often no easy feat. Despite variance in admissions policies and procedures from school to school, there are some common considerations to keep in mind.

Firstly, consider which schools feed into others and the ‘building block’ effect of how one school may lead to the next school transition. Some schools are associated, either in terms of culture or ethos, in terms of being a brother or sister school, in terms of geography and location, or in terms of ownership and governance. You may find that there are nurseries that may feed into particular pre-preps which feed into specific prep schools which feed into secondary schools. It is highly advisable to ask each school you are considering about where children transfer at each age and stage. Many schools will have their destinations lists published on their website and it is always worth discussing this transfer list with the headteacher when you visit the school.

The main transition points for independent schools are 4+, 7/ 8+, 11+, 13+ and 16+, though different schools may have slightly varying structures. Increasingly, schools that were traditionally full boarding are now offering weekly and flexi boarding options, while some schools that have been traditionally single sex have broadened their intake to co-education at sixth form. Nathalie Clyne-Wilson, recently retired in her role as Headteacher of Saint Christina’s School in St. John’s Wood, advises parents to “attend open events to gain a feel for a school’s ethos, aims, operations and how it distinguishes itself from others, as well as how it specifically prepares children for their next transition point.” Strong and highly reputable nurseries and prep schools will closely advise parents and smooth the transition through to the next stage school for your child.

“It is always worth doing your homework by consulting the school’s latest inspection report to gain some insights into what the school is doing well and what it needs to do to improve,” comments leading education authority and former headteacher, Julie Robinson. Schools will be inspected by either one of two main bodies, The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) or the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted). When reviewing a school’s inspection report it may be helpful to look at what recommendations have been outlined for the school to improve. This may give some indication of the next steps and potential future directions of the school.

School league tables are often a reference point for many parents when considering schools at the higher end of the education continuum. While some parents may view league tables as a measure of school success and an ordered ‘rank and file’ of schools, these need to be viewed with caution, as not all schools and all curricula are represented. A true measure of the success of a school can only be found by visiting and seeing the school in action to gain first hand insights about what children are learning, how their academic aptitudes are being catered to and life skills the pupils gain before moving on to the next stage in their education.

Navigating the maze of schooling from nursery to prep and beyond can be potentially disorientating. The process can be made much easier by mapping out future transitions and being realistic about how your child will fit in to each new school situation.  For parents, the key to success is to be flexible to the changing needs and interests of your child while forward planning their schooling future.

What to expect when making an application:

Typically, though not always, parents can expect the following when making an application:

  • Oversubscribed schools, particularly for London day schools where the number of applicants far exceeds the number of school places;
  • Wait lists and the offer of provisional places, sometimes from birth for those parents who choose to apply to schools who accept applications immediately after the child’s birth or within the first year. Other schools will encourage your child’s application to be submitted closer to the age of entry; and
  • Admissions procedures that involve an awareness of timing your child’s application in accordance with school deadlines as well as an awareness of the other factors in the admissions policies for each school, including sibling priority or faith priority in the case of faith schools.

Guidance for parents when applying for schools:

  • Keep your options open by applying for at least three schools (or more if you live in an area where schools are notoriously over-subscribed); 
  • of those schools to which you apply, if a school is your first-choice for your child, let this be known: schools are looking for parents who are enthusiastic, who are willing to support the school community and who will create a long-standing family loyalty that will endure beyond your child’s exit from the school;
  • always take a tour of prospective schools to get a feel for how the school operates, what staff and children have to say about the school, the quality of the facilities and the specific experiences (curricular, extra-curricular, pastoral, social and cultural) for your child;
  • it is usually best to take tours of prospective schools without your child in the first instance- (looking for schools is like buying a house and it can be an emotional process)- once you have shortlisted schools, then take your child along to see what they are naturally drawn towards as they view each school;
  • keep in contact with the school while you are on the wait list and provide the school with updated personal and work contact information as changes arise;
  • nurture the relationship with your child’s prospective school/s and attend events to keep abreast of the school/s developments. Attend annual Open Days or annual events in the school calendar where such opportunities exist. Some schools invite families who have pre-registered with them to annual events such as school fairs and sports days so that prospective families feel welcome and included in the school community;
  • at interview, sometimes the attitudes and enthusiasm for a school exhibited by parents may ‘seal the deal’ rather than your child- it helps if you can articulate why you think the school is the best fit for your child by drawing on your knowledge, research and interest in the school;
  • depending on the school culture, some schools look favourably upon parents’ willingness to be involved in school life and to share your skills and talents to the betterment of the school community- this may include cultural celebrations, career industry days, mentor programmes, helping children with reading or supporting learning at school and accompanying your child’s class on school trips. You may wish to be involved in the parent association for your child’s school- in many cases, this is central to the school’s reputation of maintaining excellent home-school partnerships;
  •  if your child is offered a place at multiple schools, liaise with each school to ensure that they are kept up to date about your final decision of school. This means that the place can be offered to the next child on the wait list without delay and if you’re ever in this situation, you will appreciate how important it is that parents help schools to keep their wait lists current; and
  • be honest about your child’s needs, personality and interests when applying for schools to ensure that prospective schools are appropriately matched to your child- the most important factor in your child’s education is for your child to be motivated and settled so that he or she may flourish at school.

Finally, trust your knowledge of your child and his or her needs when applying for schools. Schools will appreciate and welcome applications from families who are willing to support and work in partnership with them, not only now but long into the future.

Gabrielle Villani is Head of Education Services at Salamanca Group and specialises in providing education consultancy for parents and businesses.

This article was published in Exclusive and Smallish, September 2014.