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How to choose the right prep school for your child

Thinking of sending your child to a prep school? Here are the top insider tips on what you really need to look for to make it a perfect fit…

Choosing the right school for your child can be a complete minefield. A lot will have changed since you were last at school, and there’s so much more to consider than whether your little darling will get a good grounding in the three Rs. 

If your child is about to take their first steps into big school this September, you might be wrestling with the idea of whether to send them to a fee-paying school this early? Maybe you’re feeling the pressure to make sure you get your little Einstein’s education off the very best start (hello Tiger parents!) or you’re panicking that your child won’t be happy if they don’t get a place at your top choice of local primary.

Ipswich Prep School

To help make the process a whole lot easier, there are a few things you can do. Firstly, check out my helpful school reviews – as a parent of a 4-year-old I’m in exactly the same shoes as you, so I’ve snooped around some of our best local prep schools and done the hard work for you. Secondly, read on for some brilliant advice from the team at Ipswich Prep School. They’ve given their insider tips on what parents should really be looking for in a prep school, so when you get out your camera to take the obligatory first-day-at-school picture in September, you’ll feel 100% confident that you’ve made the right choice. 

How to choose a Prep School

Focus on the wellbeing provision as much as the academics

Is there a best time to move schools?

Academics aren’t everything (yep, you did hear that right!), and a good prep school will wholeheartedly agree. Parents should look at the entire, rounded process a school employs to help their pupils excel and this includes the wellbeing provision. A recent study by The University of Oxford found strong evidence to suggest that whole-school approaches to promoting wellbeing can have a positive effect on academic attainment. So, find a prep school that has excellent pastoral and wellbeing credentials and the rest will follow…

“Wellbeing deservedly became even more of a focus for parents during the pandemic as we have come to appreciate more than ever the value of human connection,” says Rachel Bryanton, Prep Director of Studies (Curriculum). “It’s essential to really understand how a school supports pupils and families during difficult times and how it promotes positive mental health more generally.”

“Good prep schools will have established pastoral programmes and you should expect confident and detailed answers. Teaching children to behave responsibly and with kindness involves continuous dialogue and an interactive approach. Fostering a caring environment by taking time to talk to pupils is important so that they feel happy and safe in and out of school. We teach children that every single one of us has a part to play in ensuring our school remains a happy and safe place to learn.”

Don’t be fooled by lots of outdoor space

Ipswich prep school

Looking round a school with 30 acres of sports fields and open space? That’s a big fat tick for outdoorsy types then! Or is it that simple? Just because a school has lots of outdoor space, don’t just presume that means your child will be educated al fresco, and gulping lungfuls of fresh air every day while enjoying a myriad of different sports.  

“Don’t assume lots of land automatically equates to lots of outdoor time,” says Head of Ipswich Prep School, Amanda Childs. “Just because schools might be set in acres of greenery that doesn’t mean the staff can manage supervision of children in these open spaces or that they are suitable for children to use all year round. Much more important for children who like being outdoors is to understand how this is integrated into the curriculum – what’s the flow between indoor and outdoor learning? Ipswich Prep, for example, has been specifically designed to allow free-flow between indoors and the outdoor learning areas. The curriculum has a ‘Bee Outside’ strand, which involves each class being outside for some of their lessons every week.” 

Find out where your money will be going

Ipswich prep outdoor learning

We all like to know what we’re getting for our hard-earned cash, especially when the cost of petrol, electricity, food… well just about everything in life has gone through the roof recently. So it’s only right to question what you’re going to get from a prep school that you wouldn’t from the non fee-paying alternative.

“It’s worth finding out what else a prep school can offer in addition to smaller class sizes and how they use their independence,” says Amanda. “At Ipswich Prep we really value our independence as a school because it frees us from the constant testing that preparing for SATs involves and it allows us to run a truly broad and expansive curriculum. We believe that young children should love being curious about the world and should discover a joy in learning that extends beyond test scores.

“Our independence means that we can offer subjects not taught in many primary schools on a regular basis such as – drama, music and languages. All our pupils learn to read music and fully develop their creative expression through working alongside our artist in residence. We are also able to expand horizons with a substantive range of co-curricular opportunities across clubs, wraparound care and school trips.”

Dig deeper into the co-curricular offering 

There’s a club for everything these days at most independent schools, so don’t just ask what clubs a school has, but how the school uses the co-curriculum to enhance learning and development.

“A broad co-curricular programme is about teamwork, opportunity and taking a risk by trying something new,” says Amanda. “The aim is to nurture different skill sets to those developed in the classroom and perhaps instil passions for activities that will last a lifetime. Ipswich Prep is fortunate to have a wide range of skills in our staff so that we can offer a wonderfully diverse programme of activities and clubs. What might you expect in terms of clubs available? Anything from bushcraft, bingo and gardening all the way through to fives, skiing and robotics.” 

Think beyond the classroom

“It’s worth asking how often the children get out on trips and excursions and if there are other sites that the school has access to?”, says Amanda. “Ipswich Prep is situated in the centre of town, which makes excursions easily accessible and means children are regularly taken out on trips – just for the day or residential trips as they progress through the school.”

Ask for examples of how the school deals with problems

We all like to think our children will breeze through school without a care in the world, but that’s just not real life. You’ll want the school your child goes to to be well prepared for any eventuality, so that problems get dealt with swiftly and effectively.  

“Don’t be embarrassed to ask some hard-hitting questions, particularly around discipline, bullying and if the children feel safe at school,” says Rachel. “All schools will have issues with behaviour and if a school brushes this question off that should send warning signals. Ask schools to explain how their anti-bullying policies are addressed – what does this look like in lessons and rewards systems?

“Recent examples at Ipswich Prep include a ‘Kindness Tree’ made by the children to highlight acts of kindness they have experienced or performed. Pupils also took on the role of ‘Agony Aunts’ and considered what advice they themselves would give to other children experiencing problems. These activities teach children how to recognise issues and give them the tools and confidence to speak out if anything happens to potentially affect their wellbeing.”

Find out about the school’s admissions process 

Don’t presume that just because a prep school is well-established and has an excellent reputation that you should have had your child’s name down on the waiting list before they were even born. If primary school offer day doesn’t go the way you want it to, it’s definitely worth getting in touch with a prep school you love to see how they can help. 

“It’s a good idea to start looking 18 months before your child is due to start Reception, but ideally no later than a year before,” says Kate Frankland, Ipswich Prep Admissions Manager. “That will allow you lots of time to work out what school best suits your child and your family’s considerations. The days of having to put a child’s name down on the register at birth are long gone and certainly for Ipswich Prep we assess all the children who have registered equally – whether they signed up 4 years ago or 4 days ago (as long as we have places).”

Don’t get too caught up in tradition either. The majority of children might join prep school in Reception, Year 3 or Year 5, but if you want to make a change at a different point in your child’s education and start them in Year 2, 4 or 6, why not? In fact, joining in Year 6 could be a very smart way to ensure a seamless entry into the senior school attached to any prep school.

“Life happens,” says Kate. “Plans change. If things aren’t working out for your child at their current school or you’ve moved, or even just changed your mind, do think about joining mid year or at an earlier year group. Young children adapt very quickly and we know how to settle and integrate children. Much better to start at an unconventional point in the year and have a happy child and a happy family than tick all the conventional boxes.”

Don’t be too quick to judge 

It’s easy to judge a school after a few minutes spent on a website or quick tour and miss out on a whole host of other facilities or opportunities that would be brilliant for your child. Many prep schools make use of a lot of off-site facilities you might not be able to see at first, especially if they are part of a larger school campus. 

“Ipswich Prep pupils benefit from the facilities of the senior school opposite (swimming pool, large playing field, five courts, theatre) as well as the extensive sports centre a few minutes away,” says Amanda. “The children also regularly visit the enclosed woodlands by the boarding house for forest school-type activities.”

Take a closer look at the classrooms 

A classroom is a classroom, right? Wrong. While they might all be made up of desks, chairs and a snazzy modern equivalent of the old chalkboard, there’s more to be gleaned from a look around a school’s classrooms. “Learning environments should highlight the achievements of the children and be a strong record of the abilities and hard work that they have put into their outcomes,” says Rachel. “Classes should be colourful, creative and vibrant places where there is a strong sense of purpose aligned with a tingling feel of excitement and fun.”

Have we piqued your interest? Visit Ipswich Prep School’s admissions page here and read our prep school reviews here.

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