The case for the ‘standalone’...
‘Standalone’ preps are truly independent, argues Jon Glen of Terrington Hall, and offer children a bespoke educational experience and the transition into the most suitable senior school at 11/13.
Terrington Hall School, York is renowned for providing a well-rounded education, balanced between academic work, music, sport, and the arts, and enabling each child to develop to the best of their potential.
We live in a quick-fix world. Feeling peckish at 2am and nothing in the fridge? Chances are your local garage/express store will be open. Need some glue on a Sunday morning to fix the dining room chair that Aunty Mabel broke on Saturday night? Get down to your local supermarket pronto. No need to wait for the ironmongers to open on Monday morning – if you have an ironmongers any more, that is.
And the relevance of this to education? Convenience and its fool’s gold glitter when it takes precedence over quality in the arena of your child’s education.
Not so long ago truly independent prep schools were the norm and flourished. Non-selective at the point of entry, they concentrated their energies on the rounded development of the child. In Years 7 and 8 the quest was to find the best school for that child. Then, as now, a good prep-school Head not only knew the child but also had a handle on where that child would be best placed at 13. I take pride in Terrington Hall for remaining such a school.
Sadly, others have fallen prey to many public schools who opened their own junior schools with the promise of a ‘seamless’ education. Traditional feeder-prep schools, or standalone schools, were squeezed and many closed. Others opened pre-preps, some merged, a few gave up the fight and begged to join their local public school.
Then the public schools opened their own pre-preps – the lifeblood of the standalone prep school - and for many this second squeeze rang the death knell.
I meet many parents momentarily lured by the marketing glitter, facilities and surface convenience of the all-through, one-stop, tied school. Personally, it fills me with horror that a child might enter a school at three and remain there until 18. Professionally, as the Headmaster of a standalone prep school and having had 12 years’ teaching experience in two all-through schools, I have good reason to question for whose good such a decision is made. Invariably, it is not the child’s.
It is, perhaps, an attractive thought that a child can be parked at three, five, or seven with the decision never needing revisiting except for an occasional cause for concern. But at these ages no one can foretell how the child will develop and whether the school that suited the reception child is equally up to the job for the child at seven or 13. More harmful is the uniformity engendered by the one-stop school system whereby school and parents have a vested interest in the child fitting in – the parents, because the educational shop has been done, and the school because it’s generally a larger, more unwieldy machine less tolerant of difference than the standalone prep school.
I like to think of standalone schools as farm shops and tied schools as supermarkets. We are not a one-size-fits-all environment. We do have some ‘funny shaped vegetables’ but we spend time and skill helping these to take their place (at 11 or 13) in the right school for them.
And this is where the standalone prep school truly serves the best interest of its pupils: because there is no preordained next step, no mould into which the child must fit, the accent of the school is to encourage the child to be the best that they can be at whatever that may be. In Years 7 and 8, equipped with an informed assessment of their child, many parents look at senior schools that would never have entered the frame for the same child aged seven (and certainly not three or five).
Moreover, for many pupils it is hugely liberating at 11 or 13 to leave behind any unwelcome baggage (‘class-swot’, ‘arrogant so-and-so’) and the strictures of established pecking orders, whether academic, sporting or social. Increasingly, parents question whether subjecting their children to the same environment, location and particularly peer-group friendships for 15 years, is healthy. Once off the prep-school leash, and having been given the wherewithal to fly, this is when the confident child soars. It is something I witness with pride and pleasure.
In conclusion, whilst the squeeze is still on for the standalone prep school, I feel a groundswell of parental goodwill in their favour and I remain personally convinced that, whilst many 3-18 schools are good, the vast majority of standalone prep schools serve their pupils better.
Jon Glen is Headmaster of Terrington Hall Preparatory School.
...versus the ‘tied’ prep school
‘Tied’ prep schools are anything but restrictive, argues Richard Evans of Bromsgrove, and best placed to offer a very broad, balanced curriculum leveraging the resources of a larger school.
Bromsgrove Prep is a co-educational school of 475 pupils, with a Senior School of 900 pupils, offering academic breadth and excellence coupled with a wealth of outstanding sporting and extra-curricular opportunities.
I have been extremely fortunate to have worked in a number of excellent prep schools over the last 21 years – some were standalone and others were tied, with varying degrees of ‘tightness’, to a senior school. Both types of school have strengths and weaknesses, with each appealling to the differing needs of parents and families.
Being in a tied prep school is not restrictive and does not mean that you cannot offer the type of educational experience you believe is appropriate. Indeed, if the senior school does not expect Common Entrance – which is increasingly being seen by many schools as a very limited syllabus and examination – it can be very liberating academically. The prep school can offer a very broad and balanced curriculum, where continuity and progression is at the core of the children’s educational experience; something which I believe is surely right.
This is especially important between the top end of the prep, and the entry point of the senior school. As a result, in the best instances, there is often very little treading of academic water in the first year of the senior school. Many parents will have specifically chosen a linked school for this reason, and possibly also for their sanity’s sake in marrying the logistics of getting their different aged children to different schools! This cohesion is a significant factor in today’s world, where the majority of parents both work and have extremely busy daily schedules.
Do not be fooled however into believing that by not doing Common Entrance, academic rigour is reduced. If you check the dreaded league tables, you will see that many of the most academically successful senior schools in the land have their own feeder prep schools, from which most of their intake will come. Looking to the future, the possibility of a Prep School Baccalaureate is something I believe many prep schools will embrace. On the grounds of academic breadth and preparation for senior school and beyond, it has much to commend it. Indeed, many tied prep schools could very easily adapt to this style of education. I feel that all prep schools should follow this discussion closely especially if the International Baccalaureate or new English Baccalaureate is more widely adopted by the majority of senior schools.
It is without doubt, in the current economic climate, an advantage to be strongly linked to a senior school. Understandably, they will rely greatly upon the life-blood of a consistent feed of pupils into the bottom end of the school. It is therefore clearly in their interest to invest in, or if necessary financially prop up, their own prep school. I would add that recruitment into the prep school itself is strongly influenced by the success and strength of the senior school. A popular, over-subscribed, proactive and non-presumptive senior school will understandably also help its prep school attract pupils; a clear benefit stand-alone prep schools do not have.
A tied prep school has the advantange of excellent access to an array of professional people, often actually employed by the whole school, in areas such as HR, IT, health & safety, marketing, legal and financial advice. Having worked for five years as the Headmaster of an excellent standalone Surrey prep school, I know that these areas would otherwise fall to the Head, a few key Governors and a good solicitor!
Tied preps, especially those in close proximity to their older sibling, will often have significantly greater staffing and physical resources to call upon in areas such as sport, the arts, music, drama, the range of extra-curricular activities available, and in specialist academic subjects which clearly enhance the quality and breadth of opportunities available to the children and their expectant and demanding parents. Unfortunately, in these tough, very accountable and value-for-money times, the enhanced opportunities a tied prep can offer, are increasingly being reflected in the closure, amalgamation, or taking over of a number of wonderful standalone small preps.
Lastly, I would like to add that it would be wrong to think that because a school is ‘tied’ it does not have traditional standards and expectations. Many tied preps are often bigger than stand-alones, but it does not mean that they lose the ethos and values of the British prep school. This is a fundamental selling point of all prep schools, and something we should all strongly support and protect in offering what is internationally recognised as a world class education.