Marylebone Mums held an education Q&A session recently to help local parents who are starting to think about education options for their children. We were lucky enough to have a couple of hours with Mei Ling, who is a mum to 3 privately educated children as well as being a school governor of a state primary school in the borough of Westminster. She shared some of her observations and experiences with a group of 5 mums and dads, as well as answered questions that had been sent in.
Basic Structure of education
Most children do 2 years of nursery school, from 3 years old. These are often called the pre-reception and reception years. They then enter Year 1 of primary school at the age of 5. You can send children to private nursery from an earlier age - there are many in the area that take babies from 6 months both in day nurseries (full daycare) but also short sessions e.g. 3 hours in the morning. Funding from the government starts at age 2 or 3 depending on your situation. There is a lot of information here https://www.westminster.gov.uk/childcare-providers and on the Westminster website generally e.g. this document http://transact.westminster.gov.uk/publications/publications_detail.cfm?ID=1205
In the state sector, children attend primary school from year 1 to year 6.
In the private sector, children attend the same school from year 1 to year 6 for girls and to year 8 for boys. Girls often sit the 11+ exam for entry into private senior school, and boys generally sit the 13+ (though there is a boys 11+ too).
What a school governor does
The governors of a school are basically like a board of directors for a company. They are a group of people chosen for their skills and knowledge, in order to provide strategic leadership and accountability in schools. They are often professionals with a variety of backgrounds.
League Tables and Inspections
In year 2, children take the Key Stage 1 exams, with Key Stage 2 exams 4 years later. These exams help identify if the child is progressing and meeting the educational markers set by the Government. If a child is falling behind, this is flagged and extra assistance and support is provided to the child. In the UK, children cannot be held back a year and will always progress to the next class.
The exams are often used by parents to judge a school and its standards when choosing a school for their child. We were (correctly) advised to treat this with caution. Each child starts from a different baseline. A class of 30 students will have a very different mix of abilities from year to year. Also, if 2 children have not met their targets in a class of 30, the impact of the % score will be very different than if those 2 children were in a class of 20.
Similarly if a school gets a good inspection one year, this does not guarantee future inspections will be rated good, as staff changes etc. Similarly an underperforming school today may be significantly improving and be good in the next inspection. Visiting schools is a worthwhile exercise, and allows you to talk to the head teacher and ask questions.
Depending on the size of a school, some schools have a 1 form entry so up to 30 students are all taken into 1 class. Other schools have multiple form entry so they have either smaller classes or larger numbers eg 2 x 30 students in a year.
Different children thrive in different environments so it is worth looking at what various schools do, both in the state and private sector. Generally speaking, class sizes are smaller in the private sector.
The knotty issue of Faith Schools
One of the main topics discussed, a particularly hot topic for Marylebone, is one of faith schools. In this area we have some very highly ranked state primary schools, but they are faith schools. The local schools Hampden Gurney and All Souls (as well as St George’s in Mayfair) are CofE and St Vincent’s is Catholic.
The admission criteria for each school are individually set so parents must look at each school individually. This is a particularly interesting exercise. For example, it was pointed out that a faith school in the neighbouring borough of Camden has in its admission policy that 50% of places are for children outside of the faith (i.e. local children) however each school can chose its own %. Unfortunately having looked at Hampden Gurney and St Vincents admission policies, they do not have such provision and on the rank order of criteria for admissions they state that for the last many years they have always been able to fill the school places with children within the faith - local children from other faiths are far down the bottom of the list and as these schools are so oversubscribed, they basically never get a place.
This is disappointing if you want to send your child to a local state primary and you are not CofE/Catholic - there is very limited choice and the standards are mixed. It also makes for a rather homogeneous mix of children in these particular schools which is odd given the multicultural nature of London and this area.
This also brought up the unfortunate truth about faith schools which is much discussed in private but rarely in public. Many parents “find religion” when their child is born, often to lose it again once the child has started primary school. Of course we all agree this is wrong, but this is the reality of the situation. The school admission policies often require a minimum attendance at church (ideally a particular church) and require a signed statement from the priest confirming this to accompany the school application form. Walk past the Church of the Annunciation at Marble Arch on Sunday mornings and you will see a disproportionate amount of prams. This is the unfortunate truth about faith schools.
Of course, not all the parents are being hypocritical, as some genuinely are Christians and are regular worshippers in the church.
Faith schools in this country were set up by churches, in order to provide education to everyone in their local community. Many of these schools were set up at a time when parents neglected their children due to poverty or when child labour was prevalent. The religious aspect was an important feature in these schools and has remained so, as it was felt that this brought the community together. The good reputation of faith schools is well deserved. However as the population has grown, especially in this area, the schools have not been able to grow with demand for places.
As a result a good God-loving person of another religion cannot access faith schools in over-subscribed Marylebone, though as mentioned earlier, this is not the case in many other areas and boroughs.
Talk to the school, ask questions
Again this applies to both state and private schools. You should try to figure out if the school will fit your child, and by 3 years old you should have a good idea about what kind of environment your child will do well in.
Another issue that concerned some of the parents at the talk, and that we were encouraged to talk to the school about when visiting is how language issues are dealt with. In this multicultural area, there is a large proportion of children who enter school not being able to speak English. The concern was that this holds back children who are native English speakers, who may not get the attention needed as non-English-speakers are brought up to standard. Asking the school how children who do speak English are provided for and educationally challenged in such a mixed environment would be key.
The discussion then continued onto the subject of Private Education
-Nursery vs Montessori
There is a lot written about the difference between the two, and if you google it you will find pages and pages of studies and information. I have no idea which is better but I would encourage parents to visit both as you get an idea of the difference even with a 10 minute visit.
There is often anxiety over whether the nursery feeds to the right pre-prep, the pre-prep to the right prep, the prep to the right secondary....
Mei Ling’s experience is that feeders can sometimes be a bit high pressure and not all children thrive under those conditions (though others may love it - again you need to judge what is right for your child). Also her experience is that a child does not have to go through a feeder to get to a school - she had 2 sons go to the same prep school - one through the feeder, one not.
If a child is only getting a place at the prep school because of being at the feeder, maybe it is not the right place for the child, and if a child is meant to go to a school he/she will get a place anyway, is one way to look at it. The flip side is that feeders matter as it makes it slightly easier to get the child into the particular school and by not sending them there you are lowering the probability of getting a space.
It is also hard to figure out which schools are the feeders. Schools are often reluctant to tell you who the feeders are. Also if a school is known as being a feeder and then has a year when few children go to the school that they are meant to feed, it hurts their reputation. You can find out by word of mouth which schools are feeders, and you can also ask the schools for information.
-They test a 3 year old?
Parents applying to private schools, especially when their children are very young, are often horrified and confused to hear that the schools test the 3 year olds. It is hard to think about your 6 month old baby being interviewed in a short few years!
Schools do not tell you what the test/interview is about. Anecdotal evidence shows it doesn’t change much from year to year, and the children do not feel as if they are being tested. They are given activities to do, have to listen and sit still, sometimes draw/colour or engage a 1-1 activity, play with others, talk to an adult etc. They make it feel like play. Preschools generally do interview the parents too.
-Single-sex vs co-ed
This is personal choice. There are social aspects to consider as well as educational ones. The surrounding area has a good mix of both types of schools.
-Do universities favour state school students now?
It was pointed out that the competition for places is harder for everyone due to international students who are very bright and also pay more in fees (so universities like them more!). The best brains worldwide want to study here.
-Can I really afford 14+ years of private school?
It is a sacrifice. Unless you are earning a lot, sending children to private school is expensive and you will feel it! But you are setting them up with a great education which is the best equipment for life. If you choose the right school for the child, they should do well. You have less ability to choose the right school in the state sector. There are few grammar schools left and they are mostly outside of London.
Many parents reduce the cost by sending children to state school for the first 6 years and then private from 11+. This may need you to pay for tutoring but this will probably cost less than 6 years of fees!
Above all what was clear was that as your child grows up, you will be able to tell what kind of school will suit them and this will help guide you when you visit schools, and make the right decisions.
Good advice was to not listen to playground chatter about schools and to not get pressured into things.
Another useful point was that this area has a high % of ex-pats. Children leave school sometimes on short notice - keep in touch with a school you like if you have not got a place. One may open up.
After a highly informative chat, I feel much less frazzled about how to go about thinking about education. There are lots of things to think about, and you do have to be organised! Feel free to send in comments, thoughts and any more questions you have! And a big thank you to Mei Ling for sharing her experience and knowledge with us.