Years 7 and 8 are Best Spent in a Prep School
In recent years, more parents have been persuaded to consider moving their children straight into a senior school at Year 7. Peter Tait argues that years 7 and 8 are better spent in a prep school...
Historically, in the independent sector, most British Preparatory schools finish in Year Eight with children sitting entrance exams in the summer term before moving onto a raft of public schools in Year Nine. While this remains the traditional pathway that most children follow, over recent years parents have been persuaded to consider moving their children onto senior school at Year Seven, if the option is there. Sometimes this is unavoidable for a variety of reasons: financial (and especially if there are grammar schools nearby), or for practical reasons, such as siblings already at being another school or for reasons of geography, gender or the choice between day / boarding. What has muddied the waters in recent years, however, has been the number of senior schools that have dropped their entry to Year Seven, ostensibly to fit in with primary schools or for philosophical reasons, or more truthfully, for financial reasons. Faced with such pressures and choices it is no wonder parents are confused as what to do, especially when they are being told that moving in Year Seven avoids those dastardly entrance exams and because that is where the main cohort starts.
From my experience, both as a prep school head and from my previous life as a housemaster in a 13 – 18 school, I would treat such advice with caution; for in my view, where ever possible, these two years are much better spent the top of a prep school in almost every respect.
For parents, the best starting point in choosing any school is to ask the question, what is the best education you can give to our children. And when asking it, parents should not define it in terms of academic results – with good schools, that is a given. What is more important is to consider what is in their child’s best long-term interests – not theirs. How ready are their children to move on? What do you really want for them?
When I asked parents these questions, the answer was invariably ‘to have a happy child’ - and if parents are serious about this, they need to factor that into their decision. And they should remember that if their child is happy where he or she is, the same child will resent being moved before being able to enjoy the opportunities and privileges that come with the last two years of prep school.
Years 7 and 8 offer the chance to grow up before the full impact of adolescence, two crucial years in which to live in a child’s world before being pulled into a world of young adults. When they move onto a senior school at age 11, part of their childhood ends and they move out of the shade. Their role models become 18 year olds and their academic horizon is GCSE. At a time when young people are under more pressure than ever before, going through the early years of puberty in a smaller and familiar environment can be hugely beneficial. I have always felt that if a child had a good prep school education by the age of 13, they were ready for anything that senior school could throw at them. They’d learnt how to learn. They’d acquired the confidence and work habits to be able to engage with independent study. That is not to say that the choice of senior school is not important - it clearly is – but by the age of thirteen, your children will have learnt the right habits and attitudes, the requisite skills and knowledge to thrive wherever they go. And that should be an important part of your considerations.
As well as allowing more time for growing up without extra social and academic pressure, prep schools provide the opportunities that come from being at the top of a school, to be involved in sport, leadership, music and drama as part of the leading cohort of a School. This is when children can take leading roles in orchestras, choirs, top teams playing regular fixtures, taking leading parts in plays, and having other leadership opportunities. You can see the confidence in debating, in the camaraderie that builds up in teams and between schools in fixtures, the socialisation of school trips and the banter that comes from the confidence of being at home in their environment. It is the most wonderful time in their young lives, to be at the top of the tree, to draw breathe before moving into a much more demanding and competitive adult world at their next schools.
The second reason to stay at prep school is academic: these are the very best years for learning and teaching – the pre-cynical age - and should be savoured.
As soon as they move to a senior school, the curriculum is at least in part predicated on GCSE and senior school staff have half an eye on what they are teaching and its relevance down the track. Too often, the best teachers in senior schools are teaching the exam classes and there is less focus and attention on these two years.
In prep schools, by contrast, especially with the reduced focus on Common Entrance and less intrusive entrance examinations, there is a far greater freedom for schools to put the national curriculum out to pasture and provide extra opportunities for learning off-piste, to teach something new, another language or some philosophy or history of Art.
This is where some of the best teaching is directed and where children can be taught without the straitjacket of the national curriculum. I remember going back to prep schools having taught History and English to 15 to 18 year olds and feeling the children in Years seven and eight could not only handle the same work, but would thrive on the extra challenge. Whether it was Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock or The Black Hole of Calcutta the only difference was that they asked better questions – or should I say they asked questions. It is a wonderful age for children to absorb knowledge, to be curious and to be challenged before their curriculum gets nailed down.
And the third crucial reason for remaining in the prep school until the end is that of having those two extra years for social and physical development – almost one sixth of their life –to become more confident and self-assured whilst inhabiting a familiar world. They will have entered the first throes of adolescence with its myriad of doubts and feelings of vulnerability and insecurity, feelings best managed in a safe environment where they have time to develop the appropriate coping strategies in a community they know and trust.
And finally, as parents, a thought! You will never feel the same sense of belonging as you do at your child’s prep school. When your children go to senior schools, your influence diminishes, not because of a lack of hospitality, but because you will be made less welcome by your children in their adolescent world with all the angst that involves. Their senior school will be a different experience and a life that belongs more exclusively to them. Enjoy them while you can.