Navigating the choice of a London Independent vs State Primary School
Updated: Feb 22
Welcome to the world of the British school system, where the choice between independent and state schools can make all the difference! The UK education system is renowned for its academic rigour and exceptional teaching standards, making it one of the best in the world. However, the question of whether to choose an independent or state school remains a hotly debated topic, and for good reason: there is so much to this not-so-simple decision.
When I started looking at this in detail, I realised that even though the UK does not have a so-called 'feeder' system, there is a system where your primary school largely can dictate which secondary school and thus university (and course) your child can be more inclined to leads towards. This first decision in their primary school choice is thus so critical and pressurising for parents. Its thus not surprising that you see a flurry of parents registering their kids to the best London schools when their kids are born or moving suburb for a really good school and paying over the odds for a home here.
The objective of this article is to take your through a breakdown of the pros and cons for both independent vs state schools, as we looked at both objectively initially, and to provide you with tips and information to allow you to make a well-informed decision on your child's school.
Independent vs State Schools
Independent schools, aka private schools as they are privately funded, are typically expensive and more exclusive than their state counterparts. The main value comes from the priveledged networks that should stay with you through life. These schools are often associated with traditional values and academic excellence. With smaller class sizes (10-20 per class) and a greater emphasis on individual attention, independent schools are often considered to provide a superior education to the state school system.
However, it's important to note that not all independent schools are the same, so, doing your homework is important when it comes to school choice. These schools can vary in terms of the curriculum taught, their particular subject emphasis and even which secondary schools and universities your child might be more geared towards if they attend here. So, amongst independent schools there even is a tiering system. Additionally, some argue that the high fees demanded by independent schools may create a lack of diversity, leading to a narrow social and cultural perspective. However, many schools have now integrated scholarship processes to integrate more socio-economic diversity.
Tips on Selecting an Independent School
Consider the school's ethos - Primary schools often have a particular ethos that guides their approach to education. Consider what values are important to you and your family and find a school that shares those values. For example, if you value creativity, you may want to look for a school with a strong focus on the arts, and similarly for STEM. Considering whether the school has a focus towards pastoral care is also important especially if you have a Summer born child.
Study the curriculum - The curriculum is an important factor to consider when choosing a primary school and trust me there is such diversity. Highly academic schools will have a more bespoke curriculum that is more advanced than the standard British curriculum. Consider a school that offers a curriculum that is well-rounded and includes a range of subjects, including languages, arts, sports and STEM subjects. It's also worth checking whether the school offers any enrichment programs or extracurricular activities. Although to manage expectations, in Central London, there is still not much outside space for kids at most schools so there is a heavy reliance on many external extracurricular activities.
Check the class sizes - The size of the classes can have a significant impact on your child's learning experience. Look for a school with class sizes that are appropriate for your child's needs. Smaller classes (10-15) may provide a more personalised learning experience, but larger classes (25-30) may offer more opportunities for socialisation. Bear in mind that not all independent schools have small class sizes so it's important to ask this question. Some schools group classes by season of age. There are pros and cons to this approach i.e. when your child is younger it's easier for them to socialise and develop with kids their age. However, as they get older, you might want them more exposed to older kids to allow further development and immersion.
Consider the facilities - The facilities available at the school can greatly impact your child's education e.g. if the school does not have a garden, commuting to the park will eat lots of time from the academic school day. Check whether the school has modern facilities, such as technology labs, science labs, and sports facilities. Outdoor spaces for play and recreation that are on-site should not be underestimated but in Central London, this is like finding gold.
Research the school's reputation - Especially in the independent sector, the school's relationship with other schools as much of the value with independent schools come from their bespoke relationships and priveledgess. Talk to parents who have children attending the school to get an idea of their experiences and how the school integrates parent feedback as this is also important for your child's journey.
Look at the school's academic record - Research the school's overall academic record but especially the leaver destination results. Check the school's performance at 7+, 8+ (if it's preparatory) and 11+ entrance examinations, and its record of preparing students for entry into top senior or preparatory schools. You can use the Good Schools Guide or Independent League Tables as great resources for this.
Consider the location and commute - Don't underestimate this. You want your journey to be as smooth as possible, especially if you are a working parent. Consider the location of the school and whether it is convenient for you and your family. Look at the commute time and method of transport, and whether it is manageable for you and your child. You might want your child to commute on their own as they get older (usually 10+)
Check the application timing and requirements so you can plan accordingly - Some of the schools in London that are in demand require you to register your interest during the year of your child's birth, with the very top schools requiring this even a few months after birth! Other schools might require an assessment test for entry and include an observation day for your child when they are 3 years old. You might not agree to this way of thinking and this again will feed into whether you match the ethos of the school.
Visit the School on an Open Day - We found this exceptionally valuable as it allows you to meet the teachers, headmaster and potentially some of the students too. It was a great way to assess the culture, personality and ethos of the school. Some schools also allowed us to look at school notebooks for kids to understand how they were performing.
Check the school fees - School Fees range from £4500 - £8000 per term in London, dependent on the school, so there is a very wide range. Please be aware that this does not include costs of uniforms, extracurricular activities, additional books, school trips held out of hours, etc.. Additionally, with independent schooling comes the luxury of extra holidays for your kids (roughly 10-30 days per year dependent on school), which implies additional costs for extracurricular activities and childcare during these times, potentially.
In the UK, state schools are funded by the government and offer free education to everyone. These schools are open to everyone, regardless of background, and are committed to promoting equality and inclusivity. They technically offer a wider range of subjects and extracurricular activities than independent schools, providing more opportunities to explore interests and develop skills. UK state schools follow the standard British curriculum and don't cater to bespoke needs. However, some outstanding schools that have high achieving results may run a slightly enhanced curriculum.
While state schools may have larger class sizes, they can provide a more diverse environment, exposing students to a variety of backgrounds and perspectives.
Tips on Selecting a State School
Research - Start by researching the different state primary schools in your area. Check the local authority website for a list of schools in your area, and read their Ofsted reports: A report produced by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills, which is the government body responsible for inspecting and regulating schools in England. These reports provide an assessment of a school's overall performance, including the quality of teaching, leadership, and learning, as well as the school's safeguarding procedures, behaviour management, and provision for special educational needs and disabilities. You can also read reviews from other parents and visit school websites to get a sense of each school's values, ethos, and academic standards.
Visit the school - You will be able to make a decision only by visiting a shortlist of the schools you are considering in person. This will give you a chance to meet the headmaster, teachers, students, and get a feel for the school's atmosphere and culture. Its so beneficial to see the facilities and classrooms which will give you an idea of the resources available to your child. With state schools, your choices will most likely be limited to schools in your Local Council Area only.
Consider your child's needs - Think about your child's personality, strengths, and weaknesses when considering which school to choose. Some schools may be more suited to children who are academic, while others may be better for those who excel in sports or the arts. You might also require a school with smaller classes if you need more pastoral care.
Look at exam results and performance data - Exam results and leavers destination performance data can give you a good idea of a school's academic standards and which universities that students are headed to. You can find this information on the school's website or on the Ofsted report. Look at the percentage of pupils who achieve expected or above expected levels, and how well the school is progressing pupils from their starting points.
Consider the school's values and ethos - Each school has its own values and ethos, which will impact on the type of learning environment your child experiences. Consider whether the school's values align with your own family values and whether the school has the right approach to education for your child.
Check the admissions process - Each school will have its own admissions criteria but this is generally a centralised process handled by the Local Authority due to stipulations regarding catchment areas or specific selection criteria. Make sure you understand the process and the key dates so that you can prepare your child accordingly. There usually is an option to select up to 3 schools on this form.
The catch twenty-two to a state school option is that in highly oversubscribed suburbs in London, gaining entry into the 'outstanding' schools (the highest Oftsed rank) requires you to either live in a catchment (specific distance from the school) or within a specific postcode. This is easy you might say, but this idea has cottoned on to most parents, and so you pay the price to attend school by having to either rent or buy at a premium in these areas. In some areas, the catchments can be as small at 100 m which makes getting into these highly in demand schools, rather difficult. In schools that go by postcode, there could be a postcode lottery system where for example 50 children are chosen from 500 that have applied. This is an additional factor to take into account when choosing a state school.
When it comes to university admissions, some argue that attending an independent school can give children an advantage, as they may have greater access to resources and contacts that can help them secure a place at a top institution. However, state school students can also achieve academic excellence and access top universities through hard work and determination.
Is a A Pre-Preparatory School Right for my Child?
For those that are London based, you will find within the independent school category, a choice of a pre-preparatory school.
Pre-Preparatory Schools (Prep Schools) are independent schools that typically cater to children aged 4-13. They are designed to prepare students for entry into top-tier independent preparatory or senior schools. Prep schools often offer a high level of academic rigour and provide students with a strong foundation in core subjects, as well as a range of extracurricular activities.
However, these schools can be very competitive, some even call them 'hot houses' and require students to undergo rigorous entry procedures, including entrance exams and interviews, a process I detail in a separate article: The 7, 8 and 11+ Eentrance Exams and the UK Shool Tiering System. Once accepted, students are given access to top-quality teaching and resources, the opportunity to develop a broad range of skills and talents, and a higher likelihood to stay on at the school till university. Bear in mind that these schools go ahead of the British Standard Curriculum, beyond the standard independent school, and have their own set curriculum.
When it comes to university admissions, attending a prep school can provide students with a competitive advantage, as they are often better prepared for the academic demands of top-tier universities (Tier 1 and Tier 2) and are sometimes tied to these. Prep schools also provide students with access to a network of alumni and resources that can prove invaluable when it comes to securing a place at a top university.
Whilst Prep schools can provide a highly tailored education that prepares students for entry into top-tier preparatory and senior schools, they are academically intense and require alot of hard work and dedication. For this reason they are not for every child, and should be considered in light of your child's personality and interests.
The UK school system offers a range of options when it comes to choosing between independent and state schools, as well as between independent preparatory and non-preparatory schools. Each option has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it's important to do your research and weigh up the pros and cons before making a decision. Most importantly take into account your child's personality, their interests and your values as a family. While independent schools may offer a more tailored education and exclusive opportunities, state schools can provide a diverse and inclusive environment that values equality and community. Both options have their strengths and weaknesses, and it's up to the individual to decide which is best for them.
So, whether you're considering an independent or state school, it's important to do your research and weigh up the pros and cons before making a decision. Remember, there's no right or wrong choice - only what's right for you.
The Kensington Diary