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Is a good prep school really worth the money?

(47 Posts)
theprefectmother Tue 10-Feb-15 21:12:20

My dd has got a place at a selective prep school. I am delighted, but also very nervous. I'm nervous about committing ourselves to this expense for the next 7/8 years.

We live in the South East in a tiny 2 bed house. Hubby and I are pretty frugal and aside from our house, this will be the biggest expense of our lives. Her sister will also hopefully get a place, so will be paying around £25k a year for both of them (gulp).

It was either this or use all our savings to get a bigger house, but we fell in love with the school and I wasn't as inspired as I thought I would be by our local village primary.

I am 90% sure we ARE making the right decision. I suppose the reality of shelling out all that money has finally hit me and I am just a little nervous.

So, is a good prep really worth it? We hope dd will either get a place at a grammar school afterwards or we may spend the remainder of our life savings on private secondary for them both.

Our outgoings will be trimmed, but not to an uncomfortable point. We can afford it, but if we didn't send them private, we could have a much bigger house, lovely holidays, a better car etc. I'd like to hear from those that have chosen to sink their money into their dc's education or those who have decided to spend it elsewhere.

Thank you.

Nolim Tue 10-Feb-15 21:13:41

Watching with interest

Looseleaf Tue 10-Feb-15 21:18:41

I'm watching with interest too as we've discussed this recently, whether to move to private school and rent modestly instead of spending on a decent house. We're deciding to stick to state schools, but can understand why you feel torn.

Looseleaf Tue 10-Feb-15 21:20:57

In our case it's the unknown ie could we sustain the school fees that's decided it for now, also for 2 children

mysteryfairy Tue 10-Feb-15 21:31:27

All three of my children moved from state primaries to prep during KS2. Our local schools are small villages schools, all lovely schools, but with each of the three they reached a point where I felt both that they had outgrown the school and also that they'd reached a point where they were old enough to travel to school. If I couldn't afford independent schools there is absolutely nothing in our local schools that would make me unhappy for them to go to them and I see lots of their friends thriving but even so I've never doubted my decision. I've given them the best education within my reach, no one can ever take that back from them, the rest is up to them now.

surreygoldfish Tue 10-Feb-15 21:50:02

Mm...I'm not so sure. Our 3 children have been / going through the local prep. Overall it's worked out really well - eldest DC moved / moving to great senior schools and youngest adores the school. Great facilities, lots of sport / music - some great teachers but not consistently so. For me, most of this falls into the 'nice to have' bucket and we are in the fortunate position of still being able to afford nice holidays etc. If we weighed up value v cost that's a different debate! in your position I think I'd use the money for a bigger home / holidays etc and if necessary save up for senior school.

TuttiFrutti Tue 10-Feb-15 22:00:58

I think you've already answered the question: yes, it is worth it for you. It's a very personal decision and not everyone would come to the same conclusion, but if you say you are 90% sure, there you are then.

We have one at a private prep school and one at state, so I can see the pros and cons of both systems. What you're paying for with private is smaller classes, fewer discipline problems (although depends on the school - some state schools don't have these either) and much better sport/art/drama/humanities. The best state schools are very good at maths and English, but don't give so much importance to the other subjects.

happygardening Tue 10-Feb-15 22:48:12

I think a lot it depends on where you hope your DD will go onto next. Without a doubt good preps plays a significant role in preparing children for CE especially where high percentages are required and tough scholarship exams e.g. the KS. All this can be done by those not at a good prep but it's significantly harder.
Good preps also offer a much bigger range of subjects often taught by specialist teachers from an early age in particular Latin and an MFL and also a wider range of extra curricular activities, sports and art. And yes there is much more inference on an all round education rather than just math and English. My DS was stretched much further in math than he was ever going to be in any state primary how ever good.
Good preps can also give you sensible advise on what senior schools to consider.
Those that go to 13+ are virtually essential for those looking at schools that start at 13+.
Having said all of this I would think very hard before stumping up my hard earned savings if I did not need preparation for CE/top scholarship, I could access the subjects not covered in my primary school out of school e.g. French club etc, I also had good extra curricular activities close to my home, I pretty much knew what senior school I wanted my DC to go on and it started in yr 7.

ginandtoast Wed 11-Feb-15 06:40:37

Yes, I think it is and unlike HappyGardening i don't think it matters absolutely where you want to go next. Circumstances can change whatever your plans are... My DCs have moved from some great prep schools in the UK where they expected to start public senior schools, DD on a top scholarship, and are now at an international school abroad with us for the time being. There, DD1 is much admired by her teachers for being a good sport, a great team player, someone with no angles or nastiness, someone who stands up for anyone she feels is being badly treated, modest rather than boastful, a self motivator with prep and school work, and above all a nice lively mature child who has settled well.
I hope DH and I played some part in that wink but at least half go to her prep school and before that, the fab outdoorsy pre prep she went in the muddy countryside.
Yes of course you can be just like that with those qualities from a state school and yes of course anything can be changed but DD has started what was a new experience with so much of a huge Head Start. It has benefitted her immensely.
So yes, I am glad we paid for a great prep school.
One trick I tell people is to look at the pupils at the top of school and talk to as many as you can. If you like them generally and you want your little one to grow up a bit like that, then you know you have found the right school for you.
(If they are all arrogant sods at 13, personally I'd give it a wife berth!!)

.... And now I have to name change again!

merrymouse Wed 11-Feb-15 07:08:44

I think it depends on the alternatives and whether you can afford the long haul of secondary school fees. In my experience, prep schools prepare for private secondary not grammar schools.

I don't think you need to go to prep school to prepare for a not very selective grammar school (unless local schools are very bad), and super selective grammars are so selective that unless you clearly have a child genius you can't really bank on your child going there, whatever primary school education they have.

summerends Wed 11-Feb-15 07:20:26

If you are working with tight margins, definitely not if what you fell in love with are the facilities with the buildings and grounds or that your DD is worthy of being selected. Not worth paying for window dressing and that includes teaching and activities. A school may claim to teach MFLs from an early age or deliver all these activities but in fact the teaching of MFLs ends up being poor and the activities easily organised out of school. If you are considering grammar, does the school take it in hand and give good advice or are parents having to do it themselves and fit it in on top of a long school day?
If in doubt make sure that the teachers of your DD's entry year impress you more than the alternative state option and give it a go but reassess your decision after a year or so after finding out more from within the school.

TheWordFactory Wed 11-Feb-15 10:20:18

If you can do it comfortably, then why the hell not grin.

If it's less comfortable then you need to make sure you're getting what you want.

Here are some things that I really rated about DC's prep (though I'll admit I didn't take them into account when we chose it - hindsight and all that shizzle).

Large entry (four forms of 15).
Full time TAs.
Lots of outdoors space that the DC use (ensure they are allowed to play on those manicured lawns!).
Early setting.
Early introduction of meaningful MFL.
Proper sports every day with matches each week.
Art studio.
Music studio.
Science labs.
ICT labs.
Specialist teachers from year 3/4.

TheWordFactory Wed 11-Feb-15 10:22:17

Things that might sway you, but turn out to be neither here nor there;

Outdoor pool.
Swanky grounds that no one can use.

Cantdecideondinner Wed 11-Feb-15 10:46:49

For us it has been proper rigorous education in the basics which we didn't see at state primary. Disclaimer: I'm sure there are state primaries that do this but weekly tables tests, proper time spent learning each topic before moving on. In literacy spelling tests, focus on correct spelling, good handwriting, proper grammar teaching, weekly comprehension and creative writing. They also started research and project work early and get sensible homework properly marked and graded.

Reports are written about my child as an individual, there is no copy and pasting and stock phrases. They are very honest about strengths and weaknesses, there is no dressing things up to make them sound better. Overall the children are individuals, not numbers and none get overlooked.

As I say, maybe it was just the outstanding state school they were at before which lacked all the things I mentioned but I wish we had done it from day 1.

EeyorePigletAndPoohToo Wed 11-Feb-15 11:47:01

We moved our DCs from state to private just over a year ago. It's not easy for us financially, but we felt it was the only option to meet our children's (very specific) needs. DH and I were both state educated the whole way and would never have felt the need to consider private for our children, but DC1 has various mild disabilities and special needs. Not enough for him to need to be at a special school, but too much to cope at a busy state school with 30+ children in a class (even though he had full-time 1:1 support). We moved them for the much smaller classes (15 max in each class), more varied curriculum, and increased flexibility for DC1. DC2 is a bright child who is positively thriving in a smaller class with more individual attention. They both love the increased opportunities for drama, music, sport etc. As Can'tdecide says above, we too have noticed that our DCs are treated far more as individuals and that reports etc are more thorough (also far more regular!). Communication with the parents is also a lot stronger and more honest and open.

So....what I'm getting at is that we made the move to private because we felt that our DCs, particularly DC1, needed flexibility in his education that the state school was unable to offer. I'd look at whether you think your DCs are likely to still achieve the same level of education and extra-curricular activities - or at least a level with which you and they are happy - if they were to remain in their state school. Or if the private option will offer enough extra to justify the cost.

TheCrimsonQueen Wed 11-Feb-15 11:55:40

I have two at Prep and I am very happy with the overall standard of teaching. The class sizes and the specialist teachers alone make it worthwhile.

If the prep is good and gets good results and you can afford it then go for it.

LIZS Wed 11-Feb-15 12:26:09

We've done similar and are now 5 years away from the end! Agree it really depends on where you see your dd/ds going next . Does the school prepare for state 11+ or even independent 11+ or is the main focus on 13+ and common entrance. Beware that preps may say the do the former but actually do the latter. Dc prep was one such , the amount of preparation that dd received for 11+ was nothing like ds at 13, nor was she encouraged to look at non academic awards. Don't be swayed by suggestions of better behaviour and less bullying either. Teaching was generally of a high standard but we also had some indifferent ones. Some of this was addressed but I also felt there was also an element of complacency if outcomes were good regardless. The benefits were small class sizes, although they did vary and increase as time went on, specialist facilities and staff, strong parents association, wrap around care including holidays etc. Do you homework and don't just rely on a flashy website and head's rhetoric.

summerends Wed 11-Feb-15 14:58:22

Musing about what everybody has said and qualifying some of my previous comments.

Convenience of longer days with regular organised sport, drama, music and other activities is obviously more valuable if you both work. Ditto lots of outside space for play.

I think regular proper science experiments in labs with specialist teachers and good DT facilities could potentially make a big difference to developing a DC's enthusiasm and expanding their horizons in those subjects. That is really lacking in state primary schools.

Agree about well taught latin being much more valuable academically in hindsight than we might have expected.

I think the litmus test is if you see your DC comes back from school enthused but the basics are still being taught properly.

splitbrain Wed 11-Feb-15 16:06:11

IME If you have a good primary school near you it's hardly worth it. Better save the money for secondary, music lessons, educational trips and a tutor when the 11 plus comes.
But I can say that because we moved in the catchment of an outstanding, friendly primary and DS was so happy there. Yes there was no latin. Yes the science was poor. But they are little! And there was a relaxed, no posh, mixed atmosphere which I think it's healthy for the early years. Now DS is in a super selective indy and is in the top group for everything including MFL, Latin and the three sciences. There is no difference at all with the kids that came from prep schools. So no loss really. And a BIG save. I don't think children need to be crammed with everything so early...
This is all based on my positive experience of course.
If you are considering the CE route then that's at 13 and you will need a prep school.

stealthsquiggle Wed 11-Feb-15 16:16:13

I have 2 DC in a prep school (non selective, but that's a function of living in the middle of nowhere) and we have been and are very happy with it, but we both work very full time with an element of travel and general unpredictability. Without them being there, we would need a parent at home - working school hours at most - to be able to ferry them to after school activities to fill gaps which are otherwise filled by school. If we had that, and a good state primary which dealt well with differentiating for different ability levels (high end as well as those struggling for any reason) then I don't think we would be left with enough differentiation to justify the expense. Does that make any sense at all? I have often questioned whether one of us could/should give up a "career" in favour of a "job" (IYSWIM) to be able to support their education more ourselves instead of relying on the school, but the equation just doesn't add up for us.

summerends Wed 11-Feb-15 17:07:59

splitbrain the benefits I mention are nothing to do with cramming but more helping DCs who learn in a more hands on approach to experience and be engaged by practical science and DT. If you have a bookish DC who moves at 11 to a similar set-up then of course academically they won't be at a disadvantage

My DC are summer born so small classes was important to me. The prep has a lot more outside space than the nearby primary schools and does sport to a higher level. The school has 3 forms of 15 so its big enough to have a proper pool of friends.

They are taught by specialist teachers and do a MFL and Latin. One thing I really like is that the older boys are encouraged to take mentoring roles with the younger e.g. helping with times tables or leading various group activities; it really helps them develop responsibility.

happygardening Wed 11-Feb-15 18:37:24

We've chosen to "sink all our money into DS2's education in particular (although both DS's went to boarding prep from an early age). I rather rashly added up the other day what we've spent and will spend if we hadn't done this. Having picked myself up of the floor I thought about what we could have done with that money. Yes we could have a bigger house but you can only live in one room at once or the same tatty very old cottage in a more expensive and even tweer small town (like the one 8 miles up the road) than the one we're in now although it would only marginally be more picturesque and like our be heaving in tourists on a hot day, we could have had more expensive luxuart holiday, bigger flashier cars, I might have done a PhD (still could) but there's more to life than all these things and I don't regret paying for education.

Patricia909 Wed 11-Feb-15 18:54:12

DS2 got a place at a competitive independent school without having been to a prep school. He was one of many non prep school boys. We were returning from abroad at the time. He did not seem to be any less "prepared" than those boys who had been at prep. The only "disadvantage" was that he had never played cricket and was never picked for the team--which suited us just fine because the tennis matches are much shorter--. So if in doubt, you might be better off staying at state and spending the money on a tutor/extra curricular.

Soveryupset Wed 11-Feb-15 20:34:38

I agree with most of the posters here - we have 2 full time jobs, four children with very small age gaps, no family help and found all the "topping up" required by the local village school very stressful. I got to a point where I was constantly stressing out - "they can't swim", "they can't type", "mum I want to join a choir/orchestra/football team" and weekends/evenings were absolute hell. We became two taxi drivers from first thing in the morning to last thing at night!

Also the academics started needing topping up later on - everything from languages to ICT, maths and english had gaps and I just didn't have the time.

I know people who have a stay at home parent and one child who do a fantastic job by sending to a local primary and then topping up - if you have the time, inclination and 1 or 2 children and you are not working then it's perfectly fine!!

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