The Difference of Two Years
Years 7 & 8 are the 'golden years' at prep school. John Baugh, Headmaster of The Dragon School, feels they can offer enormous value to a child, in educational and other developmental terms.
The final prep school years offer real value because they are the culmination of earlier learning and a time to further hone the skills which form the foundation of future academic achievement. Taught and inspired by teachers who see their pupils as senior members of the school community and relish the challenge of teaching at this level, children flourish. Additionally, leaving a prep school after Year 8 opens a wider range of future school options - offering the possibility of many senior schools that start at 13. Many of those are boarding schools and these become an even stronger choice when a child has already experienced and enjoyed boarding at prep school. There are also benefits in personal and pastoral terms: the senior pupils gain confidence and ability through the respect and responsibility they attract. Importantly, they can adjust to the changes of adolescence in an environment where they are understood and supported.
So what might children gain academically? Learning how to learn is arguably the essence of a good prep school, and the last two years are crucial. These years are a time to consolidate and develop all that has been learnt, to add new subjects such as an additional language and to refine the art of study. As a prep school pupil working towards Common Entrance, and quite possibly a scholarship or award to a future school, a child in these senior years acquires examination skills - including creativity, use of resources, time management, how to revise, and so on - that are the basis for all the important senior school exams, from GCSEs and A levels to newer options such as the International Baccalaureate.
For better or worse, of course, much of our educational culture is exam driven. If you experience important exams at prep school then meeting the demands of public exams later is far less daunting. Furthermore as a senior pupil of a prep school, some of the most experienced teachers will be assigned to teach you, to help prepare you for these important exams; at a prep school, teaching the senior children is often the preserve of the most specialised staff.
Taking exams at the Common Entrance rather than 11+ stage also means vital 'next step' decisions can come later. As a parent, you may not want to be precipitated into a decision about the right kind of senior education for your child at the age of 11 - although in some situations where schools are the subject of much competition you may feel you should. Years 7 and 8 at a prep school can offer an excellent opportunity to let your child develop further while you explore wider options. London in particular boasts a uniquely competitive educational scene. For some parents overwhelmed or unsatisfied by this, boarding at a prep school outside London could offer both a breathing space and broader academic choice. A prep school with boarding sends children to a very wide range of boarding and day, co-ed and single sex senior schools all over the country. Many of these senior schools start at age 13 and not before, so it can open up additional options for parents.
This raises the whole question of boarding - and the upper years at prep school can be a great time to try it. There are advantages academically: the space and surroundings to concentrate on learning, freedom from the distractions of younger siblings and time gained from not having to commute to school. Boarding offers structured and supervised prep sessions, with extra access to tutors and other learning resources. Boarding in these years can also help in that 'step up' to senior school. The more grown-up atmosphere of much of the senior boarding provision in prep schools, especially the larger ones, provides a suitable and gradual preparation for boarding later on. It makes sense to ease into the joys - and indeed realities - of boarding at prep school, rather than start at senior school while also trying to adjust to a whole host of other new things. Boarding in Years 7 and 8 makes the process of boarding in Year 9 at a senior school easier: your child can concentrate on coming to terms with the school, rather than adapting to the business of living away from home for the first time.
The many benefits of living at school, for some children at least, have been often rehearsed. It is perhaps worth saying in this context that the upper prep school years are also a 'golden' age for boarding. Extra time for all manner of activities, games and hobbies is of great value to children of 12 or so. It is also an age of making great friends; the emphasis at boarding school on strong friendships and enjoyable community life stands children in good stead in much of later life - at senior school, at university and beyond.
But what about the children themselves - how do they feel and perceive the world? We all want to do our best for the children entrusted to us. Every school seeks to develop characterful, individual, happy and enquiring children, who are capable of forming strong relationships and who have a mature attitude to life. At my school (The Dragon) and at all good schools, we aim to nurture those characteristics in children of all years, of course, from the very youngest to the child bidding farewell on the last day of their last term. In the matter of confidence, however, there can be a further advantage for children in Years 7 and 8 at prep school. It is that, at 11 or 12 years of age, they have the chance to be the senior pupils at a time of their childhood when respect and approval are at the top of their agenda. At the top of the school they have the chance to be treated as the senior members of the pupil community by staff and younger children alike.
Seniority is reflected in many ways: responsibility, familiarity, trust, privilege. At this age, responsibility can sit lightly on your shoulders: it can be cool to be to be a role model and set an example. You relish it. For many older children the experience of leadership is a boost to personal pride and an encouragement to future attainment. Those who have been wary of responsibility often find they grow into it with help and encouragement. A child gains confidence and ability from this stage that sets him or her up well for taking the lead at senior school. When asked to take on a particular responsibility or to supervise others, perhaps in the sixth form, a teenager without previous experience of such a role may understandably have other priorities and risk turning down a valuable opportunity.
Without doubt, children are developing physically earlier and earlier. I would argue that the prep school environment also offers advantages here. Puberty can be daunting and potentially isolating especially for these increasingly younger children. Prep school pupils, though, do not have to cope with a new school, with its culture, curriculum and traditions, at a time of demanding physiological and psychological change. Their emotional development has time to catch up with the bodily changes of puberty. They can also adjust to adolescence without the influence and distraction of older children. Pupils in Years 7 and 8 of a prep school do not feel obliged to measure up to much older children or to imitate the dress, culture, behaviour, and so on of the senior pupils. In a prep school, Years 7 and 8 are the senior pupils. I would encourage parents to weigh up the advantages of a complete prep school education, including the fact that at this sort of school, a child can take his or her first steps as an adolescent in an environment in which they are comfortable, as well as secure and supported. I know they will have the care and pastoral help of staff for whom this stage is a particular priority. Staff are familiar with every child as an individual, and know the strengths and weaknesses of every one. They will deal sympathetically with the issues of growing up from the perspective of long-term knowledge of the child.
Finally, at a larger prep school, your child can stretch academically and socially in a supportive environment that reflects the size and scope of a senior school. Living in larger groups, working in tutorial sessions, getting around the whole school campus on time and with the right equipment - all this aids personal development, independence and organisation. There is certainly an argument that growing gradually into wider surroundings, more akin to those of most senior schools, at least in the final prep years, can also make the change to senior school less daunting. For all the above are reasons I urge parents to consider the many advantages of Years 7 and 8. Those years at prep school, I am convinced, can have tremendous benefits. They are two years that really can make a difference...