There are many good reasons for choosing all-through schools. That they provide continuous education from ages 2 to 18 shouldn’t be one of them.
All-through schools are schools that are both junior and senior schools. They offer a continuous schooling experience typically from age 4 or 7 to age 16 or 18. Some offer schooling all the way from nursery. Imagine that! Schooling from Toddler to Tertiary.
They are prevalent among independent schools. I counted around 730, compared to 750 standalone preps and 300 standalone senior schools.
In the state sector they are far less common; around 110. Compare this to over 17,000 standalone primaries and 3,500 standalone secondaries. But all-through schools are in favour in the state sector and they will probably account for 25% of all new schools in the near future.
Why would a school want to be an all-through school?
For the institutions themselves, it makes economic sense. Having more pupils brings economies of purchasing scale. It’s also a more efficient use of assets. Revenue risk is better managed in a larger school. The downside of 10 pupils leaving is more significant in a school of 100 pupils than in a school of 1,000. Knowing that 100 of your 200 Year 7 places are already filled with your own pre-vetted Year 6 pupils de-risks the whole admissions process.
Why would a parent choose an all-through school over a standalone school?
Firstly, being at an all-through school mitigates a pupil’s performance dip on transition from junior to senior school. Many pupils move to a secondary which is five times larger than their primary. Unfamiliar surroundings, people and routines can unsettle a child. The longer they are unsettled, the less productive their Year 7 will be. Similarly, there will be pupils who, as large fish in their erstwhile small ponds, may not recognise the need to step up their effort on admission to senior school. There may be some pupils who feel they have “made it” and take their foot off the tutor-fuelled gas.
Whatever the reason for the performance dip, educationalists advocate ameliorating the transition as the most important advantage of all-through schools. But I’m not wholly convinced. After all, most pupils in Year 7 in an all-through school won’t join from the junior school. And it is in the interest of the school to smooth the transition for all its pupils, which, incidentally, they do.
A second reason a parent might choose an all-through school is because of specialist teaching. The staff at a senior school are mainly subject specialists. The staff at a primary school are mainly primary specialists; people whose skill is teaching all subjects to primary age children. With access to the subject specialists the junior school pupils can experience the best of both teaching styles. This is particularly relevant in Key Stage 2 (Years 3 to 6) and I think it’s the biggest advantage of all-through schools. Most primaries only have limited access to a music and PE specialist. Independent preps vary.
Less convincing advantages of all-through schools
A third reason is facilities. In general, facilities are better and bigger in senior schools. So, an all-through school theoretically offers a junior pupil access to facilities they may not access in a standalone primary or prep school. I say theoretically because this is often the biggest disappointment pupils face. More often than not the reality is that juniors are housed in separate accommodation to seniors. Which is understandable; large sixth formers v delicate Year 3s is not a fair contest in the corridor between lessons. Juniors may have access to some of the senior facilities, but it’s not a given. And if they do, its shared with the seniors. And the facilities may be primarily for larger, more skilful seniors, rather than juniors. As such the facilities of the junior school may not be as good as those at nearby standalone preps and primaries.
A fourth reason is that senior pupils could provide mentoring and leadership for junior pupils. Possibly in subject clinics but more effectively in sports, clubs and other extra-curricular activities. An all-through school should be able to offer a very wide range of clubs run by 15 to 18 years olds looking for sports leadership qualifications and experience to include on their UCAS statements. My experience is that this is variable.
Why parents really choose all-through independent schools
There is the small matter of convenience if you have more than one child of school age. Delivering them to the same campus saves a lot of travel time and logistical hassle. As well as duplication of social effort accommodating different sets of teachers and parents.
But I think it is the sixth reason which is the most compelling argument for choosing an all-through independent school. A place at the junior school all but guarantees a place at the senior school. And so, the pupil avoids 11+ or senior entrance exams. Like Year 6 SATS at state primaries, 11+ and entrance exams are a source of anxiety from Year 5 onwards. Unless you’re a tutor of course. Anxiety for the pupil, yes, but it’s the near hysteria among some parents that disappears if their child is at an all-through school. It is my contention that the overwhelming majority of switching from standalone to all-through schools in Years 3 to 6 is due to parental panic.
Why choose a standalone school over an all-through school?
For those true gluttons for punishment, it is perfectly feasible for your child make five school changes, one for each major stage of education. Once for nursery, then for infants/pre-prep, then for juniors/prep, then for seniors, then for sixth form. Clearly not for the faint-hearted! But each of these “key stage” schools offers specialism that the all-through schools cannot. All resources, teaching and facilities are geared towards these age groups. If an all-through has an extra £1 to spend, which age group will benefit? Or will all age groups share a reduced amount? For a 7-11 school there’s no decision to make. All of it goes to that age group. At a standalone primary or prep school, therefore, all facilities, teaching and investment are for primary age pupils. And yes, they will have more use of the playing field, sports hall or computer room, if they have one.
Then there is the issue of choice. Who knows how your child will develop, especially when they are at nursery or primary age? A standalone school will prepare your child for entry to a suitable senior school as their abilities develop. On the other hand, there is little incentive for an all-through school to prepare your child to move on to a different school at age 11. It’s a bit like Hotel California; “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave”.
All schools should be compared on their individual merits in providing a broad education. Standalone schools and all-through schools are structurally different, but one isn’t inherently better than the other.