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Primary and prep schools: what's the difference?

By Atom | Jun 20, 2023, 4:21 PM

Young schoolgirl wearing British green-checked primary school uniform writing at a classroom desk

Most children will attend either a primary or preparatory school (prep school) for the first years of their formal education in England. There are currently just under 25,000 primary schools and over 500 prep schools in the country.

So what are the key differences between the two types of schools?

Cost of education

The main distinguishing factor between primary schools and prep schools is the cost of the education. Primaries are state schools – they rely on funding from the government – so they are free for all children to attend. Prep schools are independent schools (also known as private schools), which means they are not managed by the government and are sustained through family finances.

Prep schools charge fees to the child's family on a termly or annual basis. Fees for day pupils can range from £10,000 to £20,000 per year (or more for some London prep schools). Boarding schools charge more due to the additional costs of accommodation, food, laundry and welfare.

Pupil ages

Primary schools educate children aged 4 to 11 (national curriculum key stages 1 and 2). Pupils will start their primary education in September after they have turned 4 and will leave primary school in July after they turn 11 (or just before, if the child is born in July or August). They then progress to either a state or independent secondary school.

On the other hand, most prep schools admit children from the ages of 7 to 13 (national curriculum key stages 2 and 3). Younger children may attend a pre-prep school before turning 7, after which they may transition into a prep school, or move to a primary school. Many prep schools have an on-site or close-by pre-prep which they are linked to, ensuring a guaranteed transition for the child.

The two main exit points in prep schools are at the end of Year 6 (ages 10–11) and the end of Year 8 (ages 12–13). Some pupils will stay for the final two years and transition into secondary school for Year 9. Many parents may choose to withdraw their child at the end of Year 6 so that they start secondary school in Year 7. This is a more common pathway for parents who have chosen state secondary education for their child, as most children start secondary school at the age of 11.

Year groups and key stages in England

Teaching and learning

As state schools are funded by the government, primaries are obliged to follow the national curriculum set by the Department for Education. This is a broad curriculum, consisting of a set of compulsory subjects that all primary school pupils follow in addition to optional subjects (the school decides whether to teach these). The table below outlines the compulsory and optional subjects studied in state primary schools.

Some schools will refer to 'core subjects', which include English, maths and science. These are compulsory subjects for all pupils attending state schools between the ages of 4 and 16.

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Subjects taught in primary school

Independent schools (which includes prep schools) are not legally obliged to follow the national curriculum. Independent schools are routinely inspected and monitored by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) – the Ofsted equivalent in the private sector – to ensure that pupils' education levels are being met.

Although preparatory schools have a choice, many do still choose to teach the national curriculum or something similar. Some additional subjects taught at prep schools include classical civilisation, drama, Latin and philosophy.

For many parents, the difference between class sizes is a key factor when choosing their child's school. There is a range of benefits to smaller class sizes, including increased one-on-one attention from the teacher and less disruption from other pupils. There may be up to 32 children in a primary class, whereas prep schools normally cap their class sizes at around 24.

Extra curricular activities

It's in the interests of all schools to offer a well-rounded education and fun alongside academia to their pupils. However, state education does not receive the same amount of funding as private education. While some primaries may provide low-cost activities (either for free or for an optional fee from the child's family), the range is often not as extensive as the provision in prep schools.

Most prep schools offer activities and co-curricular programmes in disciplines such as sport, art, music and drama – and there may be more frequent residential trips or even trips abroad. Many schools will also hold lunchtime and after-school clubs and societies in a range of academic subjects and other interests.

Exam preparation

The transition to secondary school can be a daunting experience for many children – and even more so for pupils applying for a selective school. Children who are hoping to get into a grammar school (an academically-selective state school) or a selective independent senior school will need to take competitive entrance exams in order to be eligible for a place.

Atom's guide to grammar schools

Most primaries will not offer 11+ preparation to their pupils. This might be due to a lack of demand (e.g. not enough children applying for selective schools), not enough resources and a lack of funding. There may be an exception when the school is physically in an area that has a high density of selective secondary schools (for instance, there are 32 grammar schools in Kent).

However, many prep schools tend to prepare children for entry to senior schools. The success of a preparatory school is often identified by the destination of its pupils, so it's in the school's best interest to ensure that pupils excel in their exams. Different schools will have 'typical' destination routes for their pupils and will prepare them accordingly, but some popular senior school exams include the ISEB Common Pre-Test and the Common Entrance exam.

Atom's complete guide to the ISEB Common Pre-Test

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