Private schools

An introduction for expats moving to the UK

Private fee-paying schools are officially termed independent schools (although historically referred to as public schools) because they’re independent of local or central government control.

Private schools

The UK is renowned for the quality and variety of its private schools, which include such world-famous schools as Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Roedean, Rugby, Westminster and Winchester.

Many private schools, including many of the most famous names, are run as charitable foundations. Schools may be owned by an individual, an institution or a company and, although traditionally the preserve of the wealthy, they attract an increasing number of pupils from less privileged backgrounds.

Around 50 per cent of parents who choose a private education for their children were themselves educated in the state sector. There are some 2,600 private day and boarding schools across the United Kingdom, educating around 630,000 school children. The proportion of pupils attending independent schools in England is currently 7.2%. Schools mostly take pupils from the ages of 2 to 19 and include boarding (from the age of 5) and day schools (some are both), single-sex and coeducational schools.  Some schools cater for special educational needs and there are also private schools for gifted children in art, music, theatre or dance.

With regards to expatriates, most expats who come to the UK arrive on a limited term contract. For this reason, they need to consider how their children’s education will transition back to their own country or to the next country to which they are posted.

Among the private schools in the UK there are many which follow special or unorthodox methods of teaching, for example Montessori nursery schools and Rudolf Steiner schools. All private schools must meet certain minimum criteria and be registered with the Department of Education and Science.

Private education fees in the UK

Although fee-paying, most private schools aren’t run for private profit and all surplus income is reinvested into the running of schools. Private schools receive no grants from public funds and are owned and managed by special trusts. Most schools have a board of governors who look after the school and its finances. The headteacher is responsible to the governors, but usually has a free hand to choose staff and make day-to-day decisions.

Fees vary considerably depending on a variety of factors, including the age of pupils, the reputation and quality of the school, and its location (schools in the north of England are generally cheaper than those in the south). Fees range from under £3,000 to £21,000 and above per year for day pupils, rising to £27,000+ per year for boarders. The fees also increase with the age of the pupil, senior school fees being appreciably more expensive than preparatory school fees.

Day pupils at boarding schools would pay an extra £1,000 in private school fees on average. Boarding school fees for boarders cost on average £7,800 per term.

Private schools for boys are generally more expensive than those for girls. Fees aren’t all-inclusive and additional obligatory charges are made in addition to optional extra services. There are also commercial tutorial colleges or ‘crammers’, providing a one-term or one-year preparation course for students who need intensive tutoring for either GCSE or A-level exams. There are also courses for students who have failed one or more of the exams and need to re-sit them. All are expensive, compared even to the top independent schools. They achieve results through a strong focus on academic work.

Private school fees tend to increase by an average of 5 to 10 per cent annually (unless you’re rich or someone else is paying, start saving before you have any children). Many companies and banks specialise in insurance and investment policies for parents planning to send their children to private schools.

Many senior, and some junior schools, provide scholarships for bright or talented pupils, which vary in value from full fees to a small proportion. Scholarships are awarded as a result of competitive examinations.

Types of school

Private schools range from nursery (kindergarten) to large day and boarding schools, and from experimental schools to traditional institutions. A number of independent schools are also available for religious and ethnic minorities, for example schools for Muslims, where there’s a strict code regarding the segregation of boys and girls.

Most private schools are single-sex, almost equally split between boys’ and girls’ schools, but there are a number of mixed schools (co-educational) and a number of boys’ schools admit girls to their sixth forms (by which time sex education is part of the curriculum). Coeducational boarding schools form the largest number of boarding schools, but there are over 50 girls-only boarding schools and around 20 boys boarding schools.

Most private junior schools (also called preparatory or prep schools) cater for boys from the age of 7 to 13 years, but some are for girls only and an increasing number are co-educational. Junior schools usually prepare pupils for the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) to senior private schools, which is a qualifying exam to test whether prospective pupils will be able to cope with the standard of academic work required. The CEE is set by the CEE board and is marked by the school which the pupil plans to attend. It’s completed at 13 by boys and at 11 to 13 by girls.

Entrance to a private school in Britain

Entrance to many schools is by an exam (e.g. the CEE), a report or assessment, or an interview. Most private schools provide a similar curriculum to state schools and set the English GCSE and GCE A-level examinations. Some Scottish schools set the Scottish Certificate of Education (SCE) at standard (ordinary) and higher grades. Private school pupils can also take the International Baccalaureate (IB) examination, an internationally recognised university entrance qualification.

There are many advantages to private schools, not least their excellent academic record. According to one survey, pupils at private preparatory schools are nine times more likely to achieve 100 per cent passes in the national tests than those at state junior schools. Three out of four children gain five or more GCSE ordinary level passes, more than half gain two or more GCE A-levels and more than two-thirds gain one or more.

Although private school pupils make up less than 10 per cent of the total, they take 35 per cent of the top GCE A-levels and provide over 25 per cent of university students, i.e. a student from a private school is almost four times as likely to go on to university as a student from a state school. Some private secondary schools have a near 100 per cent university acceptance rate and half of all ‘Oxbridge’ (Oxford and Cambridge universities) entrants are educated at private schools.

Don’t assume, however, that all private schools are excellent or that they all offer a better education than state schools. Over recent years, there has been a rapid expansion in private education, which some analysts believe has led to a reduction in standards in some schools. Some have expanded too fast and increased their class sizes considerably, particularly in areas of high demand, such as London and the south-east, and a number have been criticised by government ministers for their poor standards. Nevertheless, if you can afford it, it is worth the investment because of the extremely high level of teaching.

Curriculum

There is a vast choice of curricula available at private schools in the UK. This is only a brief outline of the established program, but for detailed information on different curricula, check with individual schools.

The UK Government establishes the National Curriculum for all UK State Schools. Private schools, however are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum but they often do, adding extra subject areas as they wish.

For example, private schools are known to teach modern languages, and even Latin, from a very young age. From before the age of 14, Maths and English are the core subjects. It is worth asking if the school streams pupils into sets based on ability, so that more gifted students can progress more quickly and struggling pupils receive enhanced tuition.

When looking at potential schools for their children, parents must consider how well that school prepares pupils for the Common Entrance Examinations at 11, 12 or 13 so that they can get into their first choice senior school.

From ages 14 to 16, most private schools offer GCSEs or the IB (International Baccalaureate) Middle Years Program. The majority of UK private schools teach the GCSE curriculum. However, grade inflation in normal GCSEs have pushed most boarding schools to adopt the iGCSEs, which is the international version with a more flexible curriculum.

Note that it is extremely difficult to transfer to a UK school midway through GCSEs. The alternative to GCSEs is the IB Middle Years Program. However, of the 70+ IB schools only 6 offer the IB MYP and only one of those has boarding facilities.

A Level vs. IB Diploma Program vs. Pre-U

The choice of curriculum after GCSE or IB MYP deserves a sub-heading because it is vast.The most commonly taken senior curriculum is the A-Level, which is, like the GCSE, taken over a 2 year period.

Usually pupils choose four subjects in the first year (age 16) and take Advanced Subsidiary (AS) level examinations at the end of the year. In the second year they often drop one subject and take three subjects to A-Level to end up with their 3 A-Level passes.

A-Levels have a number of UCAS tariff points allocated to the exam grades obtained ranging from A* to E. If you want to get into a top 30 UK University, you will need a combination of the top grades (A*, A and B). There are well over 40 possible A Level subjects, but most schools offer between 20 and 25 subject choices.

The IB Diploma Program is becoming increasingly popular among UK schools because not only is it an international qualification highly rated by UCAS but it is also transferrable between one country to another on the same syllabus.

It again applies to a 2 year period from age 16, but the main difference is that you have to choose one subject from each of six groups, taking Maths, a Modern Language and a Science as a minimum. It is a broad curriculum best suited to “all-rounders” who are well organised. For this reason, it is given higher UCAS tariff points than equivalent A-Level subjects.

In recent years, elite UK private schools have been put off by the grade inflation associated with A-Levels but are reluctant to switch to IB as it is too general - so they worked with Cambridge International Examinations to create a new syllabus called the Pre-U Diploma Program.

This involves more teaching hours than A-Levels and is more comprehensive, resulting in higher UCAS tariff points. There is no intermediate examination like the AS-Level. The key distinction with the Pre-U Diploma is that it offers total freedom with the choice of subjects.

Scotland has its own system of Highers and Advanced highers exams, which are roughly equivalent to AS and A-Levels and are equally valid for entry into universities. Scottish universities also tend to be cheaper than English universities.

School uniforms are generally considered to be a mark of identity, pride and discipline in private schools (some ‘public’ schools, such as Eton, have a particularly eccentric mode of dress). Parents should be prepared to buy school an everyday school uniform for their child, as well as sports kit.

Enrolling in a private school

Make applications to private schools as far in advance as possible (before conception for the best schools). Obviously, if you’re coming from abroad, you won’t usually be able to apply one or two years in advance, which is usually considered to be the best time to book a place. It isn't usually simply a matter of selecting a school and telling the head when you will be bringing little Cecil or Gertrude along. Although many nursery and junior schools accept pupils on a first-come, first-served basis, the best and most exclusive schools have waiting lists or a demanding selection procedure.

Most popular schools, particularly day schools in the greater London area and other cities, have long waiting lists. Don’t rely on enrolling your child in a particular school and neglect other alternatives, particularly if the chosen school has a rigorous entrance examination. When applying, you’re usually requested to send previous school reports, exam results and records. Before enrolling your child in a private school, ensure that you understand the withdrawal conditions in the school contract.

The UK is renowned for the quality and variety of its private schools, which include such world-famous schools as Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Roedean, Rugby, Westminster and Winchester.

Many private schools, including many of the most famous names, are run as charitable foundations. Schools may be owned by an individual, an institution or a company and, although traditionally the preserve of the wealthy, they attract an increasing number of pupils from less privileged backgrounds.

Around 50 per cent of parents who choose a private education for their children were themselves educated in the state sector. There are some 2,600 private day and boarding schools across the United Kingdom, educating around 630,000 school children. The proportion of pupils attending independent schools in England is currently 7.2%. Schools mostly take pupils from the ages of 2 to 19 and include boarding (from the age of 5) and day schools (some are both), single-sex and coeducational schools.  Some schools cater for special educational needs and there are also private schools for gifted children in art, music, theatre or dance.

With regards to expatriates, most expats who come to the UK arrive on a limited term contract. For this reason, they need to consider how their children’s education will transition back to their own country or to the next country to which they are posted.

Among the private schools in the UK there are many which follow special or unorthodox methods of teaching, for example Montessori nursery schools and Rudolf Steiner schools. All private schools must meet certain minimum criteria and be registered with the Department of Education and Science.

Private education fees in the UK

Although fee-paying, most private schools aren’t run for private profit and all surplus income is reinvested into the running of schools. Private schools receive no grants from public funds and are owned and managed by special trusts. Most schools have a board of governors who look after the school and its finances. The headteacher is responsible to the governors, but usually has a free hand to choose staff and make day-to-day decisions.

Fees vary considerably depending on a variety of factors, including the age of pupils, the reputation and quality of the school, and its location (schools in the north of England are generally cheaper than those in the south). Fees range from under £3,000 to £21,000 and above per year for day pupils, rising to £27,000+ per year for boarders. The fees also increase with the age of the pupil, senior school fees being appreciably more expensive than preparatory school fees.

Day pupils at boarding schools would pay an extra £1,000 in private school fees on average. Boarding school fees for boarders cost on average £7,800 per term.

Private schools for boys are generally more expensive than those for girls. Fees aren’t all-inclusive and additional obligatory charges are made in addition to optional extra services. There are also commercial tutorial colleges or ‘crammers’, providing a one-term or one-year preparation course for students who need intensive tutoring for either GCSE or A-level exams. There are also courses for students who have failed one or more of the exams and need to re-sit them. All are expensive, compared even to the top independent schools. They achieve results through a strong focus on academic work.

Private school fees tend to increase by an average of 5 to 10 per cent annually (unless you’re rich or someone else is paying, start saving before you have any children). Many companies and banks specialise in insurance and investment policies for parents planning to send their children to private schools.

Many senior, and some junior schools, provide scholarships for bright or talented pupils, which vary in value from full fees to a small proportion. Scholarships are awarded as a result of competitive examinations.

Types of school

Private schools range from nursery (kindergarten) to large day and boarding schools, and from experimental schools to traditional institutions. A number of independent schools are also available for religious and ethnic minorities, for example schools for Muslims, where there’s a strict code regarding the segregation of boys and girls.

Most private schools are single-sex, almost equally split between boys’ and girls’ schools, but there are a number of mixed schools (co-educational) and a number of boys’ schools admit girls to their sixth forms (by which time sex education is part of the curriculum). Coeducational boarding schools form the largest number of boarding schools, but there are over 50 girls-only boarding schools and around 20 boys boarding schools.

Most private junior schools (also called preparatory or prep schools) cater for boys from the age of 7 to 13 years, but some are for girls only and an increasing number are co-educational. Junior schools usually prepare pupils for the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) to senior private schools, which is a qualifying exam to test whether prospective pupils will be able to cope with the standard of academic work required. The CEE is set by the CEE board and is marked by the school which the pupil plans to attend. It’s completed at 13 by boys and at 11 to 13 by girls.

Entrance to a private school in Britain

Entrance to many schools is by an exam (e.g. the CEE), a report or assessment, or an interview. Most private schools provide a similar curriculum to state schools and set the English GCSE and GCE A-level examinations. Some Scottish schools set the Scottish Certificate of Education (SCE) at standard (ordinary) and higher grades. Private school pupils can also take the International Baccalaureate (IB) examination, an internationally recognised university entrance qualification.

There are many advantages to private schools, not least their excellent academic record. According to one survey, pupils at private preparatory schools are nine times more likely to achieve 100 per cent passes in the national tests than those at state junior schools. Three out of four children gain five or more GCSE ordinary level passes, more than half gain two or more GCE A-levels and more than two-thirds gain one or more.

Although private school pupils make up less than 10 per cent of the total, they take 35 per cent of the top GCE A-levels and provide over 25 per cent of university students, i.e. a student from a private school is almost four times as likely to go on to university as a student from a state school. Some private secondary schools have a near 100 per cent university acceptance rate and half of all ‘Oxbridge’ (Oxford and Cambridge universities) entrants are educated at private schools.

Don’t assume, however, that all private schools are excellent or that they all offer a better education than state schools. Over recent years, there has been a rapid expansion in private education, which some analysts believe has led to a reduction in standards in some schools. Some have expanded too fast and increased their class sizes considerably, particularly in areas of high demand, such as London and the south-east, and a number have been criticised by government ministers for their poor standards. Nevertheless, if you can afford it, it is worth the investment because of the extremely high level of teaching.

Curriculum

There is a vast choice of curricula available at private schools in the UK. This is only a brief outline of the established program, but for detailed information on different curricula, check with individual schools.

The UK Government establishes the National Curriculum for all UK State Schools. Private schools, however are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum but they often do, adding extra subject areas as they wish.

For example, private schools are known to teach modern languages, and even Latin, from a very young age. From before the age of 14, Maths and English are the core subjects. It is worth asking if the school streams pupils into sets based on ability, so that more gifted students can progress more quickly and struggling pupils receive enhanced tuition.

When looking at potential schools for their children, parents must consider how well that school prepares pupils for the Common Entrance Examinations at 11, 12 or 13 so that they can get into their first choice senior school.

From ages 14 to 16, most private schools offer GCSEs or the IB (International Baccalaureate) Middle Years Program. The majority of UK private schools teach the GCSE curriculum. However, grade inflation in normal GCSEs have pushed most boarding schools to adopt the iGCSEs, which is the international version with a more flexible curriculum.

Note that it is extremely difficult to transfer to a UK school midway through GCSEs. The alternative to GCSEs is the IB Middle Years Program. However, of the 70+ IB schools only 6 offer the IB MYP and only one of those has boarding facilities.

A Level vs. IB Diploma Program vs. Pre-U

The choice of curriculum after GCSE or IB MYP deserves a sub-heading because it is vast.The most commonly taken senior curriculum is the A-Level, which is, like the GCSE, taken over a 2 year period.

Usually pupils choose four subjects in the first year (age 16) and take Advanced Subsidiary (AS) level examinations at the end of the year. In the second year they often drop one subject and take three subjects to A-Level to end up with their 3 A-Level passes.

A-Levels have a number of UCAS tariff points allocated to the exam grades obtained ranging from A* to E. If you want to get into a top 30 UK University, you will need a combination of the top grades (A*, A and B). There are well over 40 possible A Level subjects, but most schools offer between 20 and 25 subject choices.

The IB Diploma Program is becoming increasingly popular among UK schools because not only is it an international qualification highly rated by UCAS but it is also transferrable between one country to another on the same syllabus.

It again applies to a 2 year period from age 16, but the main difference is that you have to choose one subject from each of six groups, taking Maths, a Modern Language and a Science as a minimum. It is a broad curriculum best suited to “all-rounders” who are well organised. For this reason, it is given higher UCAS tariff points than equivalent A-Level subjects.

In recent years, elite UK private schools have been put off by the grade inflation associated with A-Levels but are reluctant to switch to IB as it is too general - so they worked with Cambridge International Examinations to create a new syllabus called the Pre-U Diploma Program.

This involves more teaching hours than A-Levels and is more comprehensive, resulting in higher UCAS tariff points. There is no intermediate examination like the AS-Level. The key distinction with the Pre-U Diploma is that it offers total freedom with the choice of subjects.

Scotland has its own system of Highers and Advanced highers exams, which are roughly equivalent to AS and A-Levels and are equally valid for entry into universities. Scottish universities also tend to be cheaper than English universities.

School uniforms are generally considered to be a mark of identity, pride and discipline in private schools (some ‘public’ schools, such as Eton, have a particularly eccentric mode of dress). Parents should be prepared to buy school an everyday school uniform for their child, as well as sports kit.

Enrolling in a private school

Make applications to private schools as far in advance as possible (before conception for the best schools). Obviously, if you’re coming from abroad, you won’t usually be able to apply one or two years in advance, which is usually considered to be the best time to book a place. It isn't usually simply a matter of selecting a school and telling the head when you will be bringing little Cecil or Gertrude along. Although many nursery and junior schools accept pupils on a first-come, first-served basis, the best and most exclusive schools have waiting lists or a demanding selection procedure.

Most popular schools, particularly day schools in the greater London area and other cities, have long waiting lists. Don’t rely on enrolling your child in a particular school and neglect other alternatives, particularly if the chosen school has a rigorous entrance examination. When applying, you’re usually requested to send previous school reports, exam results and records. Before enrolling your child in a private school, ensure that you understand the withdrawal conditions in the school contract.

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Other comments

  • Mayves Mohamed, 19 January 2009 Reply

    Thanks!

    Hello, I am applying for a private school for my daughter and this info has really helped and guided me. It really makes clear some important basic facts about independent schools.