Is it worth the sacrifice?
In the current climate, many parents question the cost of school fees and whether they are worthwhile. Helen Torlesse, a mother of four children, draws on her own personal experience.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2010 issue of Attain.
Education, as we all know, is about so much more than Common Entrance percentages, academic scholarships, the number of times your child mounts the platform on speech day. But it is easy to lose sight of the largely unsung, life-enhancing, broader education delivered by our prep school system. In today's economic climate, not only are parents at full stretch but also the many contributing grandparents - hit by low interest rates and falling rates of return on investments. Never have school fees been more burdensome, the sacrifice required so great.
Added to this are the requirements made by the Charity Commission of the independent sector. Passed onto parents, these requirements render hard-won scholarships to senior schools financially meaningless if there are even the most modest assets on the balance sheet. We know. With four children to educate it was a bitter blow that our daughter's top academic scholarship gave us not one penny off her fees. So, in the face of a squeeze on all sides, and with the prospect of tougher times ahead, is the level of sacrifice required worth it?
In answer to the question, allow me to first indulge in a little scene-setting. Our son's prep school education ended last term. Common Entrance over, the term had kaleidoscoped into a frenetic round of trips, plays, matches, concerts and leavers' parties. Into this stepped the maelstrom that is Mary Tate, artistic director of the Livewire Theatre Company. Flamboyant, passionate, single-mindedly focussed on her purpose she and her team commandeered the school's front lawns to direct the Year 8s in the leavers' open-air production (this year an adaptation of Le Morte d'Arthur). From script to stage in five days' rehearsal, a tall order and, on this occasion, surely a step too far?
But on how many other occasions during their prep school life had these children faced the odds stacked against them, rehearsals going to the wire on plays, musicals and concerts, rarely if ever having the luxury of being fully prepared? These children had learned early the thrill of achievement in the face of pressure, of feeling the fear and doing it anyway, and of course they once more delivered. In spades as it happens.
Back on stage, the children are caught in a final freeze-frame tableau - swords raised, Camelot burning, Guinevere and her ladies showering the scene with rose petals. Parents, staff and pupils sit in stunned silence, eyes brimming; the Headmaster attempts some words of thanks but is overcome. Surveying the scene, a wave of admiration and gratefulness swept over me to the prep school that had nurtured and guided my children and those before me. For, I reflected, the maturity of their collective performance stood as a testament not only to Mary, but also to the prep school education that they had received.
How, for example, could this Arthur - shoulders back, head held high, voice stridently rallying his knights - be the same young boy of his parents' description, skulking behind the shepherds in the Year 1 nativity? Was it by way of his captaincy of the 1st XV, or perhaps it was the kayaking and mountaineering expeditions that had brought the man out in the boy? Each one of those children on that stage had a history such as this, a raft of experiences through which they had developed into the confident set of leavers ready to take flight to their senior schools.
For many parents, ourselves included, the opportunity to truly appreciate how far the school has brought a child only really comes when they hit that final term of Year 8, with the round of final concerts, plays, leave-taking celebrations and speech day. Better late than never, perhaps, but how much better to be mindful of what you have right now; to know now why the financial struggle is absolutely worth it. So here is a parent's-eye view of how a prep school brings out the best in its children.
In our case it was one in rural North Yorkshire (Terrington Hall Preparatory School). The school has the usual facilities - sports hall, music and art blocks, pool, computer suite, science labs - though they are by no means top drawer. It's shabby round the edges, at times chaotic, relying too often for its parents' liking on the children to know what they're doing, when they're doing it and with what pieces of kit. And yet, like so many prep schools, this school for all-comers does extraordinary things for its children.
Not only do they pass Common Entrance with aplomb, but many also develop their music, art and sport to scholarship level and beyond. This year, eight of the nine scholarships won by its leavers were outside academia. But more than this, the pupils are well-mannered, tolerant of difference and easy within their own skins; they step into their senior schools with a measured self-confidence. For all this and so much more, they have their school and the prep school system within which it operates to thank. This is a system within which inspirational teaching flourishes untrammelled by national curriculum guidelines, where the Common Entrance exam structure that has remained the same for decades provides pupils with a sound grounding for GCSE, and where the excesses of government-led bureaucracy are valiantly resisted. It is a system characterised by specialist staff with time for your child, where academic excellence is a given and the broader development of the individual the prize; a place where competitive spirit flourishes alongside courtesy, integrity and service to others.
Let's take a closer look at a prep school's biggest resource: its staff, many of whom actively pursue their passions for their subjects outside the classroom. By way of example, at Terrington Hall the Head of Science, Sam Watson, not only teaches his subject with flair but also leads an extraordinary double life. Seasoned overlander, photographer and desert bush guide, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and founding member of the Born Free Foundation, he has traversed unchartered regions of Africa and is regularly to be seen tinkering with his Land Rover Defender in preparation for the next great escape at the end of term. As someone who lives out his dreams alongside the dayjob, he is an inspiration to his pupils, and his teaching is informed by his passion for safeguarding the environment and world's species. It was under his guidance that the school's Eco Team last year achieved the prestigious Green Flag award.
And then there is Senior Master and Head of Geography Simon Ferrier, who runs the school's in-house outdoor education programme. Simon, who has paraglided for Great Britain, is an Advanced Senior Instructor in Kayaking and an International Mountain Leader, qualifications earned on the job and with the support of the school. The in-house outdoor education programme that he has developed at Terrington is, I believe, without compare. It is staff like this who make our prep schools unique; staff who go the extra mile and inspire our pupils to succeed.
And it is not just outside the classroom where staff inspire. A school where every child skips into Latin is perhaps the stuff of fiction, but staff whose approach to subjects is unique can change pupils' views of a subject. My children were taught by a one-time winner of The Weakest Link who revived flagging classes with quirky information from his books of useless facts. Nick Witteveen is an inspirational teacher who has been mentor, counsellor and friend to many a pupil, and could teach Patagonian with panache if required. (Only this year he persuaded the Headmaster to create space in the timetable for Year 8 Greek: on one lesson a week they all scored 77% and above.) And yet Nick, who enthuses his pupils for a subject traditionally served up dry, has no teaching qualification to his name, and so the state school system's loss is the prep school's gain.
Apart from dedicated staff who bring so much more to the table, smaller class sizes is a key factor in the successful prep school education. With it comes the luxury of time - time for the individual, time to nurture and understand the child and the abilities. Anyone who has had a child lost in a class of 35 knows the value of time. It took half a term for an over-stretched primary school teacher to hear one of our twins read and to agree that, yes, there was a problem to be addressed.
Free from the strictures of literacy hours and the like, there is the relative autonomy over the curriculum - space and time to widen the subject base. Quite apart from the grounding given by many prep schools in a plethora of modern languages, there are those making provision for subjects which are the traditional preserve of the senior schools, such as psychology and philosophy. Alongside time for the cerebral however, is time for the truly broader education. For a prep school with a boarding tradition, the day might end at 5.30pm but it is not the finish. With this comes sport every day for all pupils, music twice a week (more for the majority who take up an instrument), the outdoor education programme, drama, choir and band rehearsals, let alone preparation for the termly musicals, plays and concerts. And it's on top of a burgeoning school day that all the 'extra-curricular' activities come (riding, fly-fishing, archery and clay-pigeon shooting to name a few which my children have been lucky enough to do).
So, is the sacrifice worth it? Well, the answer is a resounding yes on the evidence of what has been bequeathed to my children: the confidence to strike out for the best that they can be, at whatever that might be. Unafraid of risk, able to juggle more than they can reasonably handle, adept at recovering from the inevitable disappointments, the Year 8 leavers go forward prepared for life. And that is priceless.