The Right Age for Senior School
Prep school parents have a choice about whether they want their child to go on to senior school at 11 or stay at prep school until 13. Barbara Ingram, Director of Education for IAPS, shares her observations.
As another long summer holiday ends and a new academic year dawns, many prep school parents will realise they should be thinking ahead to the next stage of their child's education. Normally in schools throughout the country pupils move from their primary schools to secondary schools when they are 11. But prep school parents have a choice about whether they want their child to go on to senior school at 11 or stay at prep school until 13. While the decision of whether to change school at 11 or 13 may seem at first glance straight forward it is worthwhile taking a closer look. There are strong educational arguments for transfer at both 11 and 13. Here some observations about the impact of transferring at 11 or 13 may help you decide as parents, what is right for your child. You are fortunate to have a choice in the independent sector of what is best. Whilst in the state sector transfer to secondary school almost universally takes place at age 11+, in the independent sector it can be at either 11+ or 13+. Mostly pupils at girls' schools and junior schools of senior schools change schools at 11, while those at traditional boys' prep schools change at 13.
Co-education and the impact of gender
Traditionally prep schools used to be 'boys only' or 'girls only' but now, owing to changes in social, parental and economic expectations, more and more have become co-educational. Consequently there is now more opportunity for girls to stay in prep school education until they are 13 but conversely there can be more pressure from senior schools for boys to transfer at 11. This has led to some interesting observations from prep school heads about the best age of transfer to senior school.
Girls usually have their growth spurt earlier than boys and at 11 are physically more mature and academically more advanced than boys. They show greater self-awareness than boys and are more articulate. They apply themselves and work in a sustained fashion. As a result they are more than ready to move to secondary education at 11. For boys, however, adolescent growth tends to come later and by the age of 13 when they are taller they will be less vulnerable and intimidated by 15 and 16 year olds well established in school. They are physically bigger so less likely to be picked on. This greater confidence makes them more able to network and communicate as individuals rather than move around as a gang. They get to know more people, group identity changes into knowledge of where they stand as individuals.
So it seems that conventional wisdom has it that going on to senior school at 11 is good for girls, whilst boys would be better changing at 13. The ages of 10 to 13 are a time of great change for both boys and girls alike. In terms of intellectual and physical development it is a time when pupils develop more abstract ways of thinking. Some children may have 'grown out of' their prep school by the age of 11, preferring to be in the company of 16 and 18 year olds rather than 4 and 5 year olds. They are ready to join the world of the young adult. However it seems that those who stay until 13 enjoy their seniority at top of the school for the extra two years regardless of how grown up they are; it allows them to take on more responsibility and leadership, and helps the quieter or less able especially to grow in confidence and ability. This applies to both boys and girls.
Regardless of whether they are 11 or 13 co-ed schooling can have advantages. The presence of girls can influence and motivate boys to learn, much to the advantage of both parties. The pace and challenge generated between the two groups gives a spur to their learning. They are socially wise and at ease with each other making them more comfortable mixing with older students in a self assured way. For those children considering boarding at senior school, trying it out when they are 11 and 12 for one or two years in their familiar prep school surroundings is going to be more comfortable and reassuring. Most prep schools now offer a variety of boarding options, from boarding on the occasional night through to complete full boarding.
Take time to speak to the Headteacher
And so, decisions made about how suitable a school may appear to be when a child is 9 or 10 can look very different a couple of years on when children have grown and matured physically, emotionally and intellectually. No matter what age transfer takes place, the Head of the prep or junior school has a thorough knowledge of each individual child and has the best interest of his or her pupils in mind. It is a matter of pride with IAPS Heads that they know their pupils well and that they can guide their pupils towards the senior school (day, boarding, co-ed, or single sex), that will allow them to do their best - the traditional role of the prep school. The Head also has detailed knowledge of the senior schools and can comment on the suitability of one over another for individual pupils. Parents would do well to make sure that they have taken advantage of the Head's expertise when deciding which senior school they want their child to go to. They want their pupils to do well at school and to continue to be happy so they will willingly give their view of how your child will fit in with the schools you are considering, and whether changing schools at 11 or 13 would be better.
What to expect - prep school teaching 11-13
If you do decide that your child should stay in the prep school to 13, your child will to continue to be challenged and your investment in your child's education will continue to grow over time, not lie dormant until they start senior school. Year 7, the year in which pupils will be 12, is the first year of the key stage 3 programme of study in the national curriculum. This is the stage before the study for GCSEs begins. Schools use this time to teach and set up good work practices for future study in the context of learning different subjects. Independent schools usually take the key stage 3 national curriculum as their starting point and add their own flavour to it. The subjects are taught at a greater pace, with more depth and a wider breadth of experience. Lessons are taught by subject specialists; in science for example physics is likely to be taught by a physicist, chemistry by a chemist, modern foreign languages by a native speaker. This will be the case whether your child has moved to the senior school or stayed in the prep school, the syllabuses run in parallel. Prep schools are different to maintained primary schools in that as the children get older they move away from class teaching to subject specialist teaching. By the age of 9 or 10 most prep school pupils will have separate lessons in maths, English, geography, history, science, art music etc., all taught by specialists in their subjects.
In Years 7 and 8 in the prep school pupils follow a programme of study for taking the Common Entrance examination. Common Entrance is a set of challenging examinations of high academic standard with pupils at 13 taking exams in history, geography, French, physics, chemistry, biology and possibly religious studies and classics as well as English and maths. Indeed where a school has both a senior school and a prep school, prep school pupils will stay in the prep school until they are 13, studying for their Common Entrance although the senior school takes non prep school pupils in at 11. This allows the senior school to concentrate on pupils from outside the prep school system where the pupils are not likely to have studied a subject before, French for example, or had subject specialist teaching. Prep school pupils will have been learning mathematics and English rather than literacy and numeracy, they will have been learning French from the age of 7 or so reaching a standard in French Common Entrance not far off a respectable GCSE grade. As a result senior schools are confident that prep school pupils will be up to the mark when they come into the school.
Time for Reflection
Many senior schools hold open days or preliminary visits when the school, parents and prospective pupils get to know something about each other. However, taking a breathing space between the visit and the formal selection allows you and your child to reflect on what you have seen, away from the excitement and challenges of the open day. Do take time as a family to discuss the options open to you. Some senior schools may only take pupils at age 11+, grammar schools for example and girls schools. They have always worked this way and pupils and schools are well adapted to meeting the demands of changing school at 11+. Pupils are happy at their new schools and achieve well. But some 60% of IAPS schools educate children until they are 13 and there is anecdotal comment from Heads that more and more pupils are transferring to senior school before then. This may be because of the draw of the senior school, parental wishes or the cultural assumption that 11+ is the statutory and consequently the 'right' age for changing schools. In some areas of the country this is further reinforced by the local 11+ selection for maintained grammar schools.
Moving from prep school to senior school is an important time academically, socially and emotionally for children. We are fortunate that in the independent sector we can stop and think about what is best for our children and their future and choose whether they are more suited to change at 11 or at 13. It all depends on the children themselves.