Can your children attend private school if they’re not traditionally ‘academic’?

Private schools are renowned for the high-flying exam results of their students. And plenty of schools require that children sit an entrance exam before they can be offered a place.

This is all very well for bookish children who love to study, but what about children whose passions lie elsewhere? Or whose talents show themselves in different ways? Can they get the benefit of private education, too?

Fortunately, private schools are as varied as the children in them. So if your child isn’t traditionally academic, it’s likely you’ll still be able to find a private school where they’ll thrive.

In this article, we’re looking at schools that see the bigger picture when selecting their students from the pool of applicants.

A new approach to selective schooling

A child hugging a pile of books

Although lots of private schools use the 11+ or 13+ entrance exam to assess whether a child should be offered a place, it’s not the only approach that schools take.

Berkshire school Wellington College puts a new spin on entrance criteria: instead of asking whether an applicant is intelligent, the school wants to find out how they’re intelligent. They look at a child’s character, personality and interests, not just their exam grades.

Once a child secures a place at the school, they get an all-round education. There’s a strong emphasis on sports, arts, and health and wellbeing for life. And when it comes to academic subjects, Wellington College aims to create a stimulating atmosphere with teaching that takes every pupil’s educational need and stage into account. It’s an approach that works – Wellingtonians achieve excellent grades ready for higher education.

All-inclusive: academically non-selective private schooling

Surprisingly, not all private schools require children to pass an entrance exam before they’re offered a place at a private school. Although entrance exams are pretty common, there’s a growing number of schools embracing a different attitude when searching for children who’ll be a good fit.

Let’s look at some of the schools taking a different angle on admissions…

An individual approach

North Bridge House in the Hampstead area of London is a group of schools proud to offer children a place without selecting by academic ability. Instead, the schools assess each child’s individual ability and personality with a view to discovering whether they can help them achieve their potential.

For some children, that’s giving them the encouragement to strive for top marks, whilst for others, it’s about offering high levels of support without piling on the pressure – it’s all about finding the best teaching approach so your child can exceed their expectations.

This forward-thinking attitude influences the schools’ teaching, too – pastoral support and extracurricular activities are given as much importance as academic studies, so children are fully equipped to enter the world.

The North Bridge House Schools create an environment where teaching techniques are informed by the latest research. It means that the mixed-ability school gets fantastic exam results for its children – even those who wouldn’t have considered themselves traditionally academic.

Finding the right fit

Another non-selective school private school is Hurst Lodge, where the children are encouraged to develop and follow their sense of curiosity. The school fosters an atmosphere where students are used to having the self-confidence to try something new, and the freedom to express their ideas.

As such, the admissions process has an informal feel. There’s a relaxed chat and a private tour of the school with the admissions team, followed by a variety of taster days and transition days for prospective students to attend.
The school uses these opportunities to understand whether your child will be a good fit, and a process like this gives your child a great sense of whether the school’s the right place for them, too.

Playtimes, not pressure

Teenagers sharing a book

If your child isn’t one to sit and study all day but would prefer to follow the arts – or simply play outside – Summerhill School could be the place for them.

Not only have formal entrance exams been replaced with informal meetings, there are also no timetabled classes and no curriculum for the children to learn.

Aren’t the children running wild?

Well, yes. Aside from a few basic rules around what time to get up by, pupils at Summerhill have complete autonomy to learn and develop at their own pace and with their own tastes.

And if that means playing outside all day, that’s fine by the school. But by the end of schooling, children have found their own motivation to follow their dreams and interests.

Students leave Summerhill School at 17, having found their sense of purpose for themselves. They understand how to be self-reliant and how to plot their own course to reach their goals.

They also know how to take responsibility for their lives and actions without being held to account by a traditional authority figure like a teacher. Some children might choose to study for traditional qualifications like GCSEs, and some may work hard to develop their skills in areas like art.

Either way, children leave the school with a higher level of maturity, autonomy and self-confidence than many of their peers from mainstream school, who have to make a bigger leap or take a longer time to transition into life as the adult they want to become.

Related content: Everything you need to know about private school education

Children with Special Educational Needs (SEN)

A teacher helping a child to read

In the past, schools requiring children to pass an entrance exam would sometimes miss out on the best candidates. It’s a simple fact that some children’s skills don’t show up well under traditional exam conditions. Sadly, that meant that many very able pupils weren’t offered a place because the performance criteria were so restrictive – they didn’t fit with the old-fashioned sense of being academically able.

Fortunately, many private schools now understand that some Special Educational Needs (SEN) can hide a child’s true abilities when they’re placed in an exam room or during an interview process. Schools nowadays can take additional needs into account during their marking and assessment so that children can be treated as individuals.

For example, educational needs like dyslexia could previously have held children back in entrance exams, but now admissions boards can look beyond inconsistent spelling into a child’s grasp and exploration of a topic.

If you know or suspect that your child has Special Educational Needs, discuss this with your prospective school before you apply – it means they can keep this in mind when they’re marking entrance exams. Talk to your child’s current school about a referral for specialist assessment and have a chat with the school’s SENCo (Special Educational Needs Coordinator) to find about the support they can offer.

Removing barriers to education

A happy child in a classroom

All in all, the variety of educational styles across the spectrum of private schools varies hugely. The picture in the private sector’s far broader and more inspiring that the narrow, mainstream approach taken by the vast majority of state schools.

In other words, your child doesn’t have to be held back by the fact that they’re not considered ‘traditionally’ academic. Instead, you can find a school where they’ll be valued for their unique skills.

They’ll be encouraged to flourish, and they’ll thrive in an environment that appreciates them as an individual, not as a set of exam results. And isn’t that the best gift you can give your child?

Investing in your child’s success and happiness

Naturally, private schools come with a price tag. And even when barriers like entrance exams don’t exist, school fees can feel like a stumbling block for some families.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

With proper financial planning, many parents find they can fund a private education without having to forego their other goals in life, like early retirement or a second home.

Want to find out how? Get in touch to discover the right financial approach to support your child’s blossoming future at a school they’ll love.