Is it really worth it?
Sending your child to a prep school is a very serious financial outlay but the benefits are considerable. Sally Weber-Spokes, Head of Yarrells School, explains why prep education is worth every penny.
There is no question that independent education is expensive. There is a vast range of prep schools from which to choose and annual fees can range from £7,000 through to £20,000 depending upon type of school, location and age of child. As working parents, we feel all too keenly the fact that our incomes are squeezed, our salaries are not rising in line with inflation, and some of us are still living with pay freezes which don't look likely to end anytime soon. The cost of everyday living is rising: whether we are buying a house or supper for Friday evening, we see in reality that our salaries don't go as far as they once did. So the prospect of educating our children privately is, for many of us, a genuine financial stretch and significant sacrifice.
Many parents mistakenly believe it is a child's senior years that are the more critical. As a result, some make the decision to try and save money by not opting for a prep education, perhaps feeling that the benefit of an independent school is only when GCSEs loom on the horizon. I know as a Head, and as a parent of two children now 18 and 15 years of age, however, that it is the quality of a child's formative years in education that pay the greatest dividends in the outcomes of adulthood.
A child's personality and character begin to form from their earliest days of life. Research has shown that by the time a child is seven years of age, they have already solidified a sense of themselves and where they fit within the world. Their approach to life, to others and indeed to themselves is setting fast. They already have a sense of how well they do things as compared to others and this sense formulates their aspirations for their futures. How critical it is then, that a child's formative years of education are rich and diverse in opportunity, full of the highest quality teaching, learning and pastoral care, and that they believe deeply, well before they get to senior school, that there is much they can achieve in a variety of areas if they set their mind and motivation to it.
It was my own children's educational experience at their prep school that I believe set them up for their lives ahead. Their early education developed and nurtured them, celebrated and supported them wholly, and provided them with a breadth of experience, grounding and a firm foundation upon which to build their futures. When they transferred to the much bigger pond of the local state secondary school, full of some 1,500 pupils, they didn't drown in a sea of anonymity. They had developed an 'I can' attitude, an ability and thirst to grapple with challenge, along with grit, determination and resilience.
"Many parents mistakenly believe it is a child's senior years that are the more critical. As a result, some make the decision to try and save money by not opting for a prep education, perhaps feeling that the benefit of an independent school is only when GCSEs loom on the horizon."
So, what is it about preparatory schools that really makes the difference to a child? In my mind there are some key ingredients that create the ideal foundations for a child's future:
1. Optimum class sizes: this is easy to write but I believe it is a fact. Teacher to pupil ratio makes an enormous difference to a child's educational experience. Being in a class of 14 as opposed to 34 allows a practitioner to properly get to know your child, gives them more attention, facilitates greater knowledge of their academic profile and allows, therefore, for more effective intervention, support and extension of their skills and knowledge base. As a teacher with both state and independent experience, the difference I am able to make in a smaller class is exponential and that makes for days at school where deep learning can take place for each child.
2. Outstanding pastoral care: prep schools place central importance on, and take enormous pride in, the quality of pastoral care within their settings. A young person needs the greatest care and attention in order to nurture their personalities and build their self-confidence. As the leader of my school, it is critical that I make sure every child is known, genuinely, by every member of staff, celebrated for their individuality and helped to develop emotionally and socially, not just academically. I know only too well that a stable and secure sense of well-being develops robust mental health in a young person and this is the absolute foundation upon which to develop aspiration and confidence in a child for the future. Pastoral care isn't just about having a nice form teacher either: it's about providing opportunities within and beyond the curriculum for the holistic growth of a child, whether it be through daily mindfulness sessions or group team building trips.
3. Outstanding teaching and learning: prep schools are full of passionate educationalists, keen to nurture curiosity and thirst for learning in the young people they teach. All my staff are subject specialists or deeply experienced in a key stage. Even the tiniest children in prep schools are being taught specialist subjects by highly qualified practitioners, whether it be in French, dance, drama or swimming. Great teachers choose to work in the independent sector precisely because of their vocational passion. It provides us with opportunity to grow knowledge and skills in young people with a liberating autonomy because we are not constrained by the national curriculum – we delve more deeply and travel more broadly within our subjects because we have the freedom to do so. I am convinced that early exposure to excellent learning opportunities encourages aspiration, and grows confidence to realise that aspiration in young people. It is one of the most exciting aspects of working in the independent sector.
"I am convinced that early exposure to excellent learning opportunities encourages aspiration, and grows confidence to realise that aspiration in young people. It is one of the most exciting aspects of working in the independent sector."
Prep education isn't simply about exposure to core curricular areas: as an educationalist, I see every day the benefits of a broad-based curriculum, whether it be the opportunity for emotional expression in music, the development of control and rigour in art, creativity in design technology, discipline and collaboration in sport – and these opportunities don't just appear every so often, but are embedded within the everyday curriculum. If you couple this with fantastic extra-curricular activities and enrichment, whether it be gardening club, robot wars, jam making or Forest School, you can be in no doubt that every single activity in which your child engages at prep school is building their character. It is helping them grow, developing their whole person, giving them important knowledge about the world around them, building and developing important skills they will need for the future they will be inhabiting.
I feel immensely privileged that I was able to provide my children with an independent education at a prep school. It was a financial stretch and sacrifice. However, watching them take the stage in their school production, wield a cricket bat in their first fixtures, become members of the model United Nations and debate world issues were proud moments for me. I recently waved my eldest son 'Adieu!' at university. He bounced off around the corner, fully fledged, whilst I quietly sobbed, but I know he is ready to face the world. It was his earliest years at prep school that set him on his positive path for the future – and for me, it was worth every penny.
Sally Weber-Spokes is Head of Yarrells, an independent day school and nursery for boys and girls aged between 2 and 13. Located in Upton, near Poole, Yarrells provides excellent opportunities for children to enjoy learning in an enriching environment.