State Until Eight?

When it comes to deciding on our children’s primary schooling, one of the biggest decisions is whether we opt for state primary or plump for private prep. January Carmalt examines some of the key factors to bear in mind to help make those first steps a little less stressful.

State until eight. So goes the overused middle-class mantra whenever the thorny subject of education surfaces, but why? Is there a grain of sensible, forward-thinking logic behind this strategy? It’s a perpetual political hot potato as nuanced as it is divisive, and tricky to assess on its merits without suffering the subtle but sure undercurrent of judgment from all sides of the debate.

First things first: running the numbers. According to the Independent Schools Council, a modest 7% of school children in England attend independent schools, but the absolute number is the highest level in decades. This is despite the fact that school fees have increased over three times the rate of consumer prices in the past five years, substantially outpacing the growth in wages. “Despite rising fees, we expect London will always see strong demand for private school places,” says Grace Moody Stuart, Director of the Good Schools Guide Education Consultants

The average cost of educating a child privately in London now sets one back a hefty £16,500 per annum. A family with two children has to earn over £55,000 annually simply to cover fees, more than twice the national average salary (ignoring future fee inflation). Bear in mind, too, this excludes necessary reserves for uniform, clubs, music lessons and field trips, not to mention other planned – or unplanned – additions to the family.

While some schools may offer sibling discounts, they are not likely to be game changing.

These sobering sums make the decision for most middle class families a serious one indeed. Having a firm grip on one’s family planning, both financially and otherwise, is paramount when deciding on private education for the long haul.

Financial hurdles cleared, we are fortunate in Nappy Valley that there are myriad  excellent schools right on our doorstep, both state and private. Indeed, one could argue we’re rather spoilt for choice; the borough of Wandsworth stands fourth in the country for the number of Ofsted-rated Good or Outstanding schools at primary level, for example.

Of course, hand in hand with league table strides is the inevitable competition for spaces. When it comes to securing a spot in a sought after state primary school however, the good news for parents is they need not worry about registering their unborn child before the 12-week scan. This is purely a numbers game, no assessment days over which to fret, or pricey applications to rush through once the umbilical cord is cut; typically just a standard registration via the council by the January before the September of the year they start school.

In Wandsworth, the percentage of pupils receiving their first choice of state primary school is 76.9%, or even higher, at 89.8%, for one of their first three preferences.

Parents will often pay a premium to live spitting distance from a top state primary such as Honeywell or Belleville, in the hope that threshold distances keep them inside the magical perimeter line. Honeywell’s350m threshold last year has shrunk slightly to 315m this year; far worse is Belleville’s, having expanded to 985m last year to reflect the provision of a bulge class, is now reduced to 399m. Estate agents have a tough time marketing homes accurately in this regard.

• The emotional environment of a classroom is extremely important for pupils and teachers, affecting children’s learning, problem-solving skills, enthusiasm and curiosity.

• Creation of a positive learning environment is essential for success in the classroom

• Engaging children with the creation of a positive learning environment by having their artwork or accomplishments displayed, makes the space welcoming and gives a clear message that they are valued.

• Providing discipline, establishing rules for conduct during learning and playtime is also key

• A vital part of a child’s development is to have a ‘Growth Mindset’ through which any feedback given is honest and encouraging, allowing them to see that they are not to be limited by any setbacks or challenges.

Source: The Eveline Day School

“Many factors determine a school’s intake including how many siblings of current pupils are scheduled to enter,” says Moody Stuart. “They will get priority, making entrance more of a lottery so hopeful families cannot necessarily rely on living in a defined catchment area.”

This is where private education offers a valuable alternative for families dissatisfied with the local options available. Explains William Petty, Director at Bonas MacFarlane Education: “Sadly not all state schools are created equal and there can be huge disparity between one’s top choice and their second. Private schools not only ease the burden of over-subscription afflicting many state schools but critically provide families with a choice of how to educate their children.”

For those gifted with their top choice state school, a big draw is the genuine sense of inclusion and community a local primary offers. Alongside that ethos of community is also the diversity of the student body and exposure to different cultures that can be lacking in some private schools.

Joe Croft, Head at Ravenstone Primary School in Balham says, “We are proud to deliver an outstanding education in a broad and balanced way for every child that comes through our gates. Along with our academic success in the statutory curriculum, more parents are realising schools like Ravenstone offer an experience that is holistic, stimulating, enjoyable and importantly, more representative of our society versus some private schools. Our children are succeeding and engaging with those from all backgrounds, and all at no extra cost.”

Petty reckons that it can make sense for families to opt for state primary in order to “safeguard funds for secondary schools”. The fact that senior schools are bumping up bursary funds to increase the intake of state school students means that families can enjoy the best of both worlds.

As guidance on state primary, parents often seek out an Outstanding Ofsted rating. However, Moody-Stuart warns not to judge a school on ratings alone. “Sometimes these labels are misleading, offering a false sense  of security if, for instance, the last review isten years old and/or leadership has changed hands since then.

“Ratings should be used as a guide, not a substitute for doing your own homework. We advise to visit the school, meet the head teacher and determine if it is the right ft for your child.”

One parent who opted for their local primary based on its Outstanding rating  was dispirited to learn that this translated into a strict concentration on SATS and assessment tests at the cost of sport and other extra-curricular activities.

Clearly, assessment tests are an inevitable yardstick for all schools, but important too is turning out well-rounded, confident pupils with a passion for learning that does not necessarily come by being drilled for state mandated, standardised tests.


• Ensure the setting provides plenty of opportunities for – and encouragement towards – building and construction play

• Look in the book corner to see if there’s a stimulating selection of books and materials featuring strong female characters and role models

• Check the outdoor areas allow girls to get messy and wet, and there’s enough opportunity for experimental play. A bit of mud doesn’t hurt and it’s important in building a girl’s confidence

• Are there independent decision making opportunities – when to take a fruit break or which activity to do?

• Do the displays encourage inquisitiveness by providing magnifiers, note pads, mirrors or question boxes? Girls may need encouragement not to take things at face value but to look  more closely

Source: Streatham & Clapham Prep School

Tony Lewis, Headmaster of The White House Prep School in Clapham mirrors these sentiments. “We encourage our pupils to take an interest in learning beyond a set academic curriculum, one which captures their imagination in a way that a more myopic, exam-focused strategy cannot offer.”

We all seek high academic standards, and it is true there are many families who choose private school with an agenda – for its perceived exclusivity and to gain firm footing on the path towards a top university. Refreshingly, however, most parents simply want to give their children a more varied breadth of education alongside excellent pastoral care and expect private schools are better equipped to provide this.

Smaller classes, individual attention and flexibility to offer a broader curriculum including more sport, art, drama and music are hallmarks of a good private education that, despite best intentions, some state schools struggle to provide in the current cost-cutting climate.

Moreover, heading from primary to senior school, privately educated applicants can have the edge with more bespoke preparation, personal guidance and critically, the vested interest provided by
their head teachers. Conversely, for students coming from state primary to a private secondary or grammar school, some advise tutoring in order to level the playing field.

Today more than ever, the academic pressure put upon our children is fierce across the spectrum. But in our quest for the best, we forget there is no one size fits all. Circumstances change, education is fluid, and what may suit a family and child today, could change tomorrow. Whatever your choice, the most important thing to remember is a happy child will always thrive.


• Try to establish the facts but remember the truth can easily become distorted – children don’t want to receive a negative or disappointed reaction from their parents.

• Be clear about the school’s pastoral system; there will be several layers. Most issues can be resolved by the form teacher who has the best understanding of the children and the class dynamic. For more serious matters, contact the Deputy Head (Pastoral).

• Try to avoid contacting the parents of the child in question. Parental emotions can run high and the school is better placed to investigate.

• It can be hard to see your child upset, and schools will take these matters seriously. Minor disputes between children are a normal part of growing up, helping to build resilience and preparing them for senior school and adult life.

• In most cases, and with a helping hand from school, problems will pass but don’t always expect a resolution overnight.

Source: Hornsby House School


Having siblings in the same school has many advantages, both practical (holiday dates) and emotional (magical shared memories), but there are different considerations when they are twins.

• Whether both children are in the same class is a matter for parental preference and school policy, with no choice at a one-form entry school.

• If twins start in the same class, ask for them to sit separately and consider moving them to different forms later on.

• Twins are two individuals who may have friends in common but will also foster separate friendships. Others should never feel obliged to invite both children.

• Never compare your twins or allow anyone else to do so.

• Never label twins eg the academic twin vs the sporty twin – doing so clips their wings.

• Teachers must learn names, harder than it seems when twins are identical, in uniform and not standing side by side.

• Make separate appointments at parents’ evenings – ideally not consecutive.

• You know your children best; if you think they will do better together then inform the school. Some need the support of their twin until they are ready to separate, be it at five or at 15.

Source: Peregrines Pre-Preparatory / Falcons School for Girls

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