Everything you need to know about private schools

Everything you need to know about private school education

Choosing your child’s school is a milestone for any parent. For some, selecting a school is a source of excitement, but other parents can feel anxiety, too. You need to be sure you’re making the right decision for your child’s happiness, well-being and learning.

Researching the options can be an overwhelming task, so if you’re considering a private education for your child, you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, we’re going to tell you everything you need to know about private school, public school and independent school. Let’s dive in…

Spot the difference: what are public, private and independent schools and what makes them different?

children with paint making a hand print picture

The terms can be confusing, but in short, public schools, private schools and independent schools are essentially the same thing, and the names are often used interchangeably.

They’re all schools that are not funded by the state (and are, therefore ‘independent’). Instead, they’re funded by school fees paid by the parents of their pupils.

Since they’re not financed by the state, private, public and independent schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum and are not (directly) answerable to the Department for Education (DfE) for the teaching they provide. More on that later.

The difference between private schools and independent schools

There are, though, a few subtle differences in the ways the different types of privately funded schools are run. Independent schools are responsible to a board of trustees or governors who oversee everything they do. Private schools, meanwhile, may have a single owner who runs the school without a governing body.

The difference between public schools and private schools

Public schools tend to refer to an older, more exclusive group of private schools. They’re usually boarding schools and they hold a lot of prestige in the UK and around the world.

The name ‘public school’ is a historic term that was given to a select group of boys’ boarding schools in the nineteenth century. It meant they’d been given autonomy from other education providers of the day like the church, the government or the crown, and instead being run by governors or trustees.

You’re likely to have heard of most of the original seven schools in this group as they still exist in high regard today – Eton College, Harrow, Charterhouse, Winchester College, Rugby School, Shrewsbury School and Westminster. But nowadays there are more public schools in the UK, including girls’ schools and coeducational schools. Although most public schools are boarding schools, they usually offer day places to students, too.

Public schools tend to be among the higher cost schools, and often their entry requirements are more selective than other private or independent establishments.

What are prep schools and pre-prep schools?

Finally, there are a couple more names for schools that you might have come across: prep schools and pre-prep schools. These are private schools (or public, or independent) that are defined by the age of the pupil. Prep schools (short for ‘preparatory schools’) are for children aged 7-11 – or 13 in some schools – whereas pre-preps are for children aged 3-7.

Private, public and independent schools explained

To keep things simple, here’s a straightforward summary of the different types of private school and their definitions:

Independent school Any school not funded and controlled by the government, but instead financed by tuition fees. Usually overseen by a board of trustees or governors
Private school A school funded through tuition fees, that may be run by an owner rather than a board of governors
Public school A private or independent school with highly selective entrance criteria
Prep school Short for ‘preparatory school’, a private, independent or public school for children aged from 7 to 11, or 13 in some cases
Pre-prep school A private, independent, or public school for children between 3 and 7
Private education Learning that takes place at any fee-paying school

Although these definitions might seem very strict, in truth the terms for different types of private school have become more relaxed and are now often used interchangeably.

Freedom to fly: do private schools follow the national curriculum?

A baby playing with a bright blue ball

Since privately-owned and -funded schools aren’t controlled by UK Local Authorities (LAs), they aren’t required to follow the national curriculum. Instead, they can choose to follow their own programme of teaching. Often, the topics covered are drawn from the curricula of other countries, or they can be guided by the UK national curriculum.

This approach gives independent schools the freedom to enhance the education they give pupils. They offer opportunities for children to be inspired by subjects outside the squeezed state school focus on core subjects. For example, private schools can often include more sports, music, arts or languages in their studies.

One of the advantages of private education is that schools can use this freedom to update their curriculum quickly and responsively. The state sector, meanwhile, has less agility to react – it takes much longer to implement changes to the national curriculum and across all state schools. Independent schools can be more adept at preparing students for a fast-evolving modern world, incorporating an education in subjects like coding, entrepreneurship and finance.

For instance, to give their pupils the edge some schools delve into etymology to support and improve literacy and comprehension. Other independent schools recognise the importance of emotional wellbeing, adding empathy classes to their programme of study.

Of course, the independent schools sector keeps an eye on the national curriculum as a baseline but usually extends learning into other areas to give their pupils the very best educational advantages.

Maintaining standards: are private schools inspected by Ofsted?

A woman resting her hands on a desk covered in papers

All schools must be inspected to ensure their standards are maintained and children are well-served and safe in their learning environments. Since independent schools aren’t directly answerable to the government, not all of them will be inspected by Ofsted.

The body that helps a particular school to uphold its high standards will depend on whether the school is affiliated with a member association.

For example, schools that belong to the Independent Schools Council (ISC) have inspections carried out by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). The ISC has many member associations, so you’ll become familiar with plenty of acronyms as you search for the right school for your child.

Previously, schools such as British Overseas Schools (BSO), Focus Learning Trust (FLT) schools, Montessori and Steiner schools had been inspected by the Schools Inspection Service (SIS). But since the SIS ceased to operate, the DfE has been working with the ISI to ensure a smooth handover to alternative inspectorates.

Independent schools that are not monitored by any other provider have inspections carried out by Ofsted. Ofsted inspects around half of all public schools in the UK, and it’s important to note that all inspectorates of private schools are approved, regulated by, and answerable to Ofsted.

Why are private schools registered charities?

Three brightly coloured plastic chairs in a row, one red, one blue, one yellow

As you begin to research schools for your child, you may notice that many independent schools are registered charities. Why is this?

Holding a charitable status means the school cannot operate for profit and should create a benefit to the public.

Around 75% of UK private schools are registered charities, and this allows them to make the most of sizeable tax breaks and lower business rates. In return, the school should bring a meaningful benefit to poorer students or the public, according to a high court ruling in 2011.

One of the most popular ways for schools to do this is by offering bursaries to children whose parents wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to give them an independent education. However, UK parliament documents say that this is not a requirement.

High-class teachingthree children following a teacher through a door to the outside

Parents often assume that the standard of teaching is higher in private schools than in state schools, but there’s actually little evidence to back this up.

Teachers in private schools have usually had a very similar education to those employed in the state sector. However, it may be that independent schools have more pulling power to attract teachers with higher qualifications, like PhDs, because they can offer higher salaries.

But with smaller class sizes, more freedom in the material they teach, and longer school holidays, private school teachers potentially feel less pressured in their jobs and are therefore able to deliver greater levels of excellence to their pupils.

School’s out for a (long) summer: why are private schools have more holidays?View out of a plane window of sky and another plane

And speaking of longer holidays, why do public schools enjoy shorter-term times that state schools?

Private schools aren’t under the control of the LA, and so are free to set their own term dates. Since they often have longer teaching hours and sometimes require attendance on a Saturday, the learning material can be completed more quickly. It all adds up to longer holidays for private school children.

The cost of learning: how much do private schools cost?

Since private schools receive no financial support from the state, the vast majority of their funding comes from school fees.

Not all independent schools cost the same, and the amount per term will vary depending on the location, the prestige of the school, the age of your child, and whether they’re boarders or day students.

When choosing a place for your child, research a few schools to find out how much private education will cost. Remember that you’ll also need to budget for additional expenses like uniforms, trips and sports equipment.

It’s worth bearing in mind that your child may be eligible for a scholarship, bursary, or other financial help, so the cost you’re given could be quite different to the amount you eventually pay. Talk to the schools you’re interested in to find out what’s on offer.

How to financially plan for private school education

When you’ve decided that private school is the right choice for your child, we can help you plan your finances so that you can comfortably afford school fees. Request a call to make sure you can fund your child’s school fees without missing out on your other financial goals, like a second home or early retirement.