The UK Private Education System: a Guide

The different terms used in the private education system in the UK can be confusing. Schools can be called public schools, private schools, independent schools, pre-prep, prep schools and sometimes private grammar schools. In this blog, we explain the private school system and the meanings behind these terms.   

What is a public school? 

The term “public” school is a little contradictory and different from “state” schools: public schools are old-established boarding secondary schools. The term dates back to 1868, when 7 boys’ schools got their independence from the Crown and all other bodies in order to be governed instead by a board of governors. The 7 include CharterhouseEton CollegeHarrow SchoolRugby SchoolShrewsbury SchoolWestminster and Winchester College. Nowadays, there are more public schools, including girls’ and co-educational schools, which have both boarding and day pupils. Public schools are all members of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference. 

What is a boarding school? 

Boarding schools are schools which have the facility for pupils to sleep at the school for different amounts of time (termly, weekly or on a flexible basis). Some boarding schools, such as Marlborough and Uppingham are full boarding – this means children stay at the school twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Full boarding suits those who live a fair distance from their chosen school or overseas. Boarding schools offer a wide range of extracurricular activities after classes. Some accept day pupils as well to give the experience of a boarding school to pupils, without having to stay away from home. To learn more read our blog on boarding schools 

There are also state boarding schools, which tend to be cheaper than other boarding schools. For more information on state boarding schools, please read our blog on state boarding schools.

What is an independent or private school? 

Independent and private schools are terms that can be interchanged: it means they are not funded by the state. In these schools, families pay tuition fees. The difference between independent and private schools lies in running the school. Independent schools, on the one hand, have a board of governors, or trustees, who oversee the school. Private schools, on the other hand, are run by their owner and generally don’t have any governing body. 

Both independent and private schools can charge fees and have the autonomy to run outside of government regulations.  However, they must conform to accepted standards of education, health and safety. All are regularly inspected, usually by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). Or sometimes by the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). All private schools prepare pupils for public exams at 16+ (GCSES or National 5s in Scotland) and 18+ (IB, A levels or Highers/Advanced Highers in Scotland).   

What is a prep or pre-prep school? 

“Prep” is short for preparatory. These schools are private primary schools – sometimes called junior schools – which prepare pupils for the entrance exams to independent secondary schools. Girls’ prep schools finish at the end of Year 6, just as some co-educational preps, as almost every girls’ private secondary school starts at Year 7. For more information read our blog on London girls’ senior schools. Many leading boys’ senior schools, such as Radley and Tonbridge admit pupils at aged 13, in Year 9. Which is why boys’ prep school go up to 13 years, instead of 11 years. Some co-education prep schools, such as Eaton House, the Manor in Clapham, prepare both girls and boys for 11+ and 13+ exams – so girls leave at 11 and the boys at 13.   

Even though some boys’ preps don’t have exams until Year 8, many secondary schools now request a pre-test in Year 6 or 7. Pre-prep schools welcome pupils from 3 to 7/8 years old and prep schools from aged 7 to 11/13 years old. 

What is a private grammar school? 

Some private schools, like the leading Bristol Grammar School, in Bristol should not be confused with state grammar schools. Private grammar schools charge fees like any independent school. However state grammar schools, like King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, are completely free. To learn more read our blog on state grammar schools, you can click here.

State grammar schools are highly selective and aim to teach a very academic curriculum.  

Are private school admissions selective? 

Short answer is, yes.  How selective will depend on the school.  For most leading London and top boarding schools, entrance demands on success in the 7+, 11+ or ISEB Common Pre-test (Mathematics, English, Science, verbal and non-verbal reasoning), a great report from your child’s previous school, plus an interview and sometimes a group assessment. For some senior schools, deadlines for applications can be 3 years in advance. Children can also be invited to an open day, taster day or welcome morning to see how they interact with other children.

For early years, nursery and 4+, the assessment will be rather gentle with a mix of speech, interaction with other children and play. Special needs children are happily welcomed – but some schools are better at providing a higher degree of additional support needed.   

Sometimes, during the tour of the school or during a chat with the Head, parents will also be assessed to see if they are the right fit in the parent body.    

Big name or famous schools, although great for some children, may not always be the best option for your child’s personality, pastoral needs and academic profile. Trying to get your child in a top name school that may not be the right fit should be reconsidered. There are many less well-known schools that offer a high standard of pastoral care and education.   

Private education in the UK is confusing. Why is that? 

You want the best education for your child. However, navigating the private education system can be tricky. It is a commitment not only in finance, but also in trust and especially if you choose the boarding school route. The Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) is useful to learn more about the schools. It is more or less the equivalent to OFSTED for private education. Reviews and word-of-mouth are useful as well, but so much information can be hard to process. Fortunately, Lumos Education is here for you. If you want to register your child in a private school, our education consultants have years of experience and will be able to help you navigate the private education system. 

Please contact us for expert schools’ advice and support with applications in the private education system, private and independent schools. We also provide support and advice with applications to any other schools in London, and throughout the UK.