Spoilt for Choice

Single sex or co-ed, private or state, day or boarding? These are just some of the choices facing parents when launching their child into the British education system. Nicola Woolcock, Education Correspondent of The Times, shares her expert guidance on these options and more.

It’s fair to say that the English school system is one of the most convoluted in the world. Parents new to secondary education (since their own school days) have to pick their way through a patchwork quilt of pedagogy. The situation is worse for those fairly new to the country.

The barrage of choice can be summarised as whether to go private or state, selective or non-selective, day or boarding, coeducational or single sex, faith or secular. But
each of these can overlap – for example someprep schools now keep children until 16 while others have thrown in the towel with the 13+ and lose most of their pupils at 11.

Throw free schools, academies, and university technical colleges into the mix and it adds to the confusion. Education Secretary Damian Hinds said soon after he was appointed that he backed
grammar school reforms, where there was demand from parents. He also supported a ban on new faith schools taking more than 50 per cent of pupils on the basis of their religion.

There is still support for the expansion of the 163 existing grammar schools, many of which are in London and the south-east of England. The first expansion was approved last year when the Weald of Kent Grammar School opened an annexe in Sevenoaks, and this has opened the floodgates for other schools to make similar applications, including Wallington County Grammar School in Sutton, which reportedly wants to open a new campus in Croydon for 1,000 pupils.

To win a place at a grammar, children must sit an entrance exam – the 11 plus – and the battle for places ranges from mildly competitive to downright ferocious. Similarly, some state schools that have garnered a fantastic reputation are partially selective and some are even comprehensive. Graveney School, an outstanding secondary school in Wandsworth, offers 70 places on ability. Harris, a London-based academy chain, has several outstanding primaries and secondaries.

Its primary in East  Dulwich, which opened in 2014, was rated outstanding in all areas in 2017. And Harris Academy Battersea came third in England in the Department for Education’s performance tables last year, which ranked GCSE results by children’s progress between 11 and 16. Its sixth form is extremely high performing and it works closely with Oxford University; pupils also have the chance to work alongside PhD students.

The achievement is all the more impressive in the light of the overhaul of GCSEs and A levels over the last few years.

Grades achieved by pupils at top state schools rival those of their independent counterparts, which confuses the issue if trying to choose between sending your child to a state or private school.
Furthermore, one of the highest performing schools in A levels last summer was King’s College London Mathematics School, a highly selective state sixth form in Lambeth. Almost 99 per cent of exams were marked as an A* to B grade, and more than 58 per cent were graded A*.

Impressive grades were also achieved by many grammars, leading some parents to seriously question whether to make the considerable investment in private education. Maths is something local state primary Ravenstone School is specialising in, having achieved the status of maths mastery specialist school. “We are now supporting six schools on implementing a mastery curriculum,” explains Head Joe Croft.

State or private? The cost is considerable for the latter. The annual census by the Independent Schools Council (ISC), published earlier this year, showed that fees had risen by 3.5 per cent – the lowest since 1994 but still above the rate of inflation. A day school place now costs an average of £14,106 and a boarding education an average of £32,259 a year. For the London area the average fee rise was 4 per cent, to £16,572 for a day place and £36,363 for boarding.

Luckily for parents, schools are providing more bursaries than ever, without which many would have become preserves of only the super-wealthy, squeezing out the middle classes. School finance teams will look not only at parents’ salaries but also outgoings and lifestyle, for example how many children are in the family, whether elderly relatives need to be supported, does one spouse choose not to work – even where the family  goes on holiday and their brand of car.

Schools are in a difficult position in balancing the books: they face criticism for fee rises but will not attract families with shoddy facilities and inexperienced teachers.

Many parents still believe in the value of a private education for reasons beyond the academic. They have the freedom to offer amazing facilities and teaching in arts, drama, music, languages and sports; the ISC census shows more than 700 member schools have concert halls or theatres, 400 have dance studios and 600 have swimming pools.

In sharp contrast, state schools are facing real-term budget cuts, leading to a squeeze on non-essentials in many cases, a well documented crisis in arts education – and growing class sizes. Private schools do not have the same constraints and many are also better placed to offer pastoral support.

In an age of super-size secondaries of up to 3,000 pupils, some independent schools use this as their USP. Thames Christian School near Clapham Junction prides itself on its small class sizes
and intimate experience. It is also recognised for its specialist dyslexia teaching.

Dr Stephen Holsgrove, its Head, said: “There are a lot of children who for whatever reason weren’t designed for the [larger] education system. Some can churn through bigger schools and everything is fine. There are others who are quirky creatives, who don’t quite ft and they need somewhere they’re going to be understood.

“We have fantastic creative arts, performing arts, sport and music. Pupils’ maths and science can be quite strong and we make lessons more active and more visual – you can do that in a class of 16, you can’t in a class of 30.

“We also educate a lot of bright children whose parents want them in a place where they are nurtured and looked after.”

Dr Holsgrove said the school’s faith ethos was also attractive to some parents, and that the mix of pupils meant some of the brightest children learned to understand and respect that not everyone shared their academic abilities, and that pupils who could beat them in a debate might not be able to get their arguments down so well on paper.

About half of children are local to Wandsworth with others from as far afield as Weybridge, Croydon, Islington and even Brighton.

The school is mixed gender and the number of purely single sex schools is in decline nationally – however there is still suffcient demand for girls’ and boys’ schools, particularly in London and the south-east.

Thomas Mylne, head of all-girls Streatham & Clapham Prep School, puts the case for single sex schools early on. “Girls, from the youngest age, need to be encouraged to use their ‘voice’ in both a vocal sense but also in terms of their physical presence. Too often in co-educational settings they lose out to rambunctious boys in the race for the more appealing activities and, sadly, get overlooked in terms of teacher’s attention, even despite the best conscious efforts to provide equal attention.”

Northcote Lodge School and Broomwood Hall Upper School, both in Wandsworth, are fee-charging prep schools that teach children single sex from the age of 8 – they have the same owner and the former is for boys and the latter for girls.

However Carole Jenkinson, the Head of Broomwood Hall, can see the merits of both single sex and mixed education at different ages. Younger children are in mixed classes at her school, then are separated from eight to 11. Although classes remain segregated after that, they have joint activities with boys, such as debates, from the age of 11 to 13, in preparation for senior school.

She said: “I’m a believer in co-ed and a lot of my pupils go on to co-ed schools, mostly  at 13. In the final two years of school, we bring them together a lot more and do a couple of residential trips together [with the  boys from Northcote Lodge].

“But my experience is that from Year 3 upwards (age seven-eight), girls play with girls and boys play with boys. Most of the girls who start here in Year 4 say they can concentrate better without boys in the classroom, it’s quieter. It means we can create an environment to encourage girls to take risks, because some can be risk averse.”

At secondary level, Robert Milne, Head at Emanuel School, stresses the importance of co-education. “Co-educational schools, at their best, serve as emblems for what our wider society should be: inclusive, caring and happy places, ones that support the fulfillment of personal ambition and harness that in helping others.”

Chris Hutchinson, Head of Royal Russell co-ed school, believes passionately in coeducation while taking on board that girls and boys learn differently, at a different pace and require different stimulation and motivation. “It does not mean that educating boys and girls separately is the answer to increased academic success,” he says. “The opposite in fact can be true. Girls and boys are exposed to different points of view and perspectives, see ways of approaching a project they hadn’t yet considered or the benefit of beautifully organised notes.”

Antonia Geldeard, Head of Sixth Form at Trinity – a single sex school from ages 10-16 – says that the boys are “free from any competitiveness that may arise between boys and girls” in Lower and Middle Schools, and that they have the “freedom to develop confidence in areas that they may otherwise feel they don’t have the ability to try.”

At sixth form however, she feels co-ed is a distinct advantage. “Students…are better prepared for further education and the world of work…and any competition is channeled in a productive way.”

Whichever way you jump, it’s imperative that the school allows the voice of the child, something that Eveline Drut, Head of The Eveline Day School and group of nurseries, stresses. “Every child, whatever their age, is capable of self expression. Giving every child  a voice promotes self esteem and self worth; they learn that they are important and valued.”

The choice you make for your child for secondary/senior school will determine at what age they leave prep school. Those going to state school will leave at 11, those going to boarding school will often stay at prep school until 13, and for those private day schools which take children at 11 or 13, the parents can choose.

Carole Jenkinson said parents of those leaving at 13 were more likely to pick a coeducational school, than those who left at 11, which she felt was because of girls’ greater maturity at that age.

Some families apply at 11, do not get in, and then try again successfully for a place at 13.

The choice is overwhelming for parents,” says Mrs Jenkinson. “I start the process in Year 4 (when the child is eight or nine). I give parents a list then advise them to look at school websites and cull that list. When the child is in Year 5 they visit the schools. By then we have done our own exams and have those important results.”

Preparation for 11+ and 13+ tests is vital. Each senior o For example, parents wanting to apply to Dulwich College for entry into Year 7, need to register by November of the year before. The child sits exams in January of the year of entry, in English, maths, verbal and nonverbal reasoning, and interviews take place later that month. Each school’s website will set out their entry requirements
r boarding school has its own entry requirements and children usually sit tests and can also face interviews.

For example, parents wanting to apply to Dulwich College for entry into Year 7, need to register by November of the year before. The child sits exams in January of the year of entry, in English, maths, verbal and nonverbal reasoning, and interviews take place later that month. Each school’s website will set out their entry requirements

Boarding is becoming an increasingly popular choice for some parents, partly to counteract the over-subscribed London day school market. Ben Freeman, Head of Finton House School, says it’s really a question of family choice. “Weekly/flexi boarding allows children access to a school’s co-curricular programme while spending part of the week at home.”

Sarah Segrave, Head of Eaton House The Manor Prep School, sees another benefit: “Some families may see many advantages in having their boys weekly or full boarding though their teenage years.”

While another consideration comes from Vania Adams, Head of The Roche School. She believes weekly boarding “can be a boon to the children of hard-working professionals”.

Despite the staggering amount of information and choice out there, parents should not panic. The most important thing is to take your own child’s personality into account and be realistic about their abilities and the sort of environment in which they would thrive.

The second is to visit a school, ask questions – even awkward ones – and talk to parents who already send their children there to get a feel for it. It might be a magnifcent school on paper, but will not necessarily suit everyone.

The third is to remember that one of the biggest inputs to a child’s academic success at any school is parental interest at home, and that south-west London and the surrounding area is jam-packed with amazing schools. Good luck!

Twitter: @nicolawoolcock


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