What exactly is a prep school? (And the answers to 10 more questions about preparatory schools)

Pupils arriving at West Sussex independent school Sompting Abbotts

Pupils arriving at West Sussex independent school Sompting Abbotts

1. What exactly is a 'prep' school? 

Like every type of school, preparatory schools are all very different in their ethos and their goals. They’re also different from a mainstream school. Prep schools are independent so do not have to follow the National Curriculum although many use it as a starting point. 
‘Prep’ or preparatory schools are private schools that are the equivalent to the primary and middle schools of the state education sector. Most cater for children aged two to 13 years, although some take children up to the age of 16. 

2.  Have prep schools changed over the last century?

Assembly at Sussex private school Sompting Abbotts Prep School

Assembly at Sussex private school Sompting Abbotts Prep School

Yes, prep schools used to be small establishments designed to make boys aged 8 to 13 ready for boarding school. These days, most have grown and diversified. More than half of those in the UK are now co-educational. 
Prep schools traditionally prepared children to take the Common Entrance Exam for admission into independent secondary or senior schools. This is still true of many prep schools although for some, the focus may now be preparing children for a good state grammar school too. 


3. How are prep school standards inspected? 

The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) inspects most prep schools and Ofsted monitors the ISI, on behalf of the UK’s Department of Education. 
Leading prep schools also apply for membership of the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS), a schools association with around 650 of the world’s leading prep schools in membership. 
Schools must reach a high standard to be eligible for membership, with strict criteria on teaching a broad curriculum, maintaining excellent standards of pastoral care and keeping staff members’ professional development training up to date. 
Although each IAPS schools is independent, and has its own ethos, each one must demonstrate full commitment to delivering an excellent, well-rounded education to the pupils in their care. 

The fact that children stay at a prep school until 13, as opposed to going to a secondary state school at age 11, means children have two extra years to be able to develop a little more of ‘who they are’. So their social and emotional wellbeing is nurtured for longer. This can mean a smoother transition and that when they do start, they’re more able to withstand some of the difficult external pressures that are commonly present through peer influences in secondary schools. 

4. How many children are there in a typical prep school?

 The average number of children in an IAPS school is 260, but many schools have a smaller enrolment. So prep schools tend to be far smaller and have a more ‘family feel’ than most state schools. 

5. Aren’t independent and prep schools dwindling in the current economic climate?

 Actually, no. Since 2016, the ISC reports, the number of independent schools in the UK has returned to the pre- 2008 recession level and is still growing. The 2016 figure also represents the highest total this century. 

6. Can I get help with paying the fees?

children at private school near worthing sompting abbotts

Yes, fee assistance exists and continues to increase, with both the amount available and the number of children who benefit rising, says the ISC. 
However it is based on a genuine needs basis. Bursaries in 2016 worth more than £700m a year were provided to 41,000 pupils. 
Affordability is a priority issue for independent schools and they work hard to remain competitive whilst facing pressures on salaries, pensions and maintenance costs. 
Increasingly, independent schools tend to be sensitive to the struggles hard working families face in paying school fees. Last year the overall fee increase was the lowest it has been in 20 years. 

 
6. How is the curriculum different at a prep to a state school? 

Modern prep schools offer a high standard of education for pupils that is usually based on the National Curriculum and its Key stages but that goes beyond it. They balance traditional values with cutting edge teaching and learning. Today they are very different from the traditional cliché of old-fashioned uniforms, rigid discipline and academic rigour.

7. How else are prep schools different to state schools?

They have smaller class sizes, a very strong focus on pastoral care and more ‘enrichment’ or extra-curricular opportunities. The arts, music, speech and drama, and sports tend to be strengths. Many have a strong dramatic tradition. So prep school children develop strong confidence in public speaking and performance. 

Girls relaxing on the lawns at Sompting Abbotts Prep School

Girls relaxing on the lawns at Sompting Abbotts Prep School

Prep schools traditionally ensure the children come out with broad horizons and have a lot of fun alongside academia. They tend to concentrate on extending childhood. The fact that children stay at a prep school until 13, as opposed to going to a secondary state school at age 11, means children have two extra years to be able to develop a little more of 'who they are’. So their social and emotional wellbeing is nurtured for longer. This can mean a smoother transition and that when they do start, they’re more able to withstand some of the difficult external pressures that are commonly present through peer influences in secondary schools. 

The kitchens at Sussex independent school Sompting Abbotts Prep School

The kitchens at Sussex independent school Sompting Abbotts Prep School

Many provide home-cooked meals and boast extensive grounds, sports halls, shooting ranges, swimming pools, croquet lawns, and even golf courses. So they can be good if your child is sports-inclined. 
The other big difference from state schools is prep schools’ emphasis on ‘developing character’ and ‘soft skills’ such as creativity, teamwork, empathy, resilience and honesty. Prep schools usually focus hard on ‘people skills’ and on children’s ability to communicate effectively and show courtesy and respect. 

 
8. How do prep schools differ from one another? 

Children having swimming lessons in the outdoor heated pool at Sompting Abbotts

Children having swimming lessons in the outdoor heated pool at Sompting Abbotts

They all vary hugely, precisely because they are independent, and because they don’t have to follow the National Curriculum slavishly. 

Some prep schools have links with specific public schools so this is worth thinking about if you’re hoping for a particular senior school.

If you make it clear that you’re choosing a prep school for its links to a certain secondary, the school will know your aim from the outset and can set to work nurturing your child for this. 

Some prep schools belong to larger educational groups and are highly academic and serve as ‘feeder schools’ to a specific high-achieving senior school. If your child is not academic and unlikely to respond to this type of pressure, then this type of ‘hot-house’ prep school won’t be right for you. 

Other prep schools are independent, feed a range of destinations and pride themselves on nurturing children of all abilities and of being able to help parents decide the right ‘fit’ senior or secondary school for their child. 

9. Many prep schools still seem to be ‘family-run’? 

sompting abbotts is a family run prep school in worthing

Yes, many of the longer-established prep schools are still family-run. Family-run schools tend to have a less corporate feel and often strongly reflect the values of the proprietor. Those that are truly independent are often still family- owned, smaller and tend to be more quirky, individualistic and ethos-driven. 

These are the characterful type where the owner's family dog sits in the school office and there are piles of wellies on the main school front step. 

Academically, attending an independent school in England is associated with the equivalent of two additional years of schooling by the age of 16, according to ISC figures. DfE performance tables from KS4 to KS5 back this up. They show that 94% of ISC schools added ‘significant’ value compared to 37% of state schools. 

 10. Where can I find a league table of the best prep schools? 

You can’t – the IAPS is opposed to league tables of schools based on the narrow criteria of test results – but looking at each school’s scholarship and Common Entrance exam results will give you a sense of its academic clout while students achievements in other areas will indicate other strengths. 

The IAPS believes that one of the great virtues of its prep schools is their individualism and the breadth of their educational provision, both curricular and non-curricular. Tests, they say, do not provide a true reflection of all that is on offer in prep schools. 

This ‘wider excellence’ is a characteristic of IAPS schools, whether or not they use the Key Stage tests. Typically it is based on specialist teaching and facilities, small teaching groups and good discipline. 

 
11. What are the real benefits of a prep school? 

child at worthing private school sompting abbotts

That’s the million-dollar question. But the fact that so many parents still send their children to prep schools is an indication of their value. If you get a chance to go to a prep school open day, ask the parents about why they chose that particular school. Parents generally choose preparatory over state schools for these reasons: 

  • Usually, class sizes are smaller, offer more individual attention and are taught by more specialist teachers. This can be important if your child is either very bright or has special educational needs. 
  • The facilities are often excellent, with good sporting amenities and often, large grounds and open space. 
  • Most parents, however, choose a prep school because of the ‘value-added’ educational programme offered. This tends to be more ‘rounded’ than at a state school.
  • Academically, attending an independent school in England is associated with the equivalent of two additional years of schooling by the age of 16, according to ISC figures. 
  • DfE performance tables from KS4 to KS5 back this up. They show that 94% of ISC schools added 'significant' value compared to 37% of state schools. 
sompting abbotts preparatory school is a Worthing private school

Sompting Abbotts is a preparatory school near Worthing, Steyning and Shoreham-by-Sea. It has been a family-owned school since it was established in 1921. Sompting Abbotts Preparatory School is a Sussex independent school that is a member of the IAPS.