We have all probably experienced one of the powerful effects that the dreaded pandemic has exacted; namely re-evaluating our family situation, our jobs and our quality of life under the ‘new’ and increasingly unpredictable ‘normal’. The opening days of the crisis and certainly as Lockdown 1.0 was firmly underway saw many early decision makers up sticks and look outside of London for their future and in particular their children’s schooling. Many – typically British – families have always planned to leave the city for the country at some point early on in their children’s primary education. A number of rural prep schools have a major intake into Year 4, a vestige from the once dominant boarding prep school era. As said countryside prep schools have adapted with changing trends, increasing numbers of them now offer education from Reception with some having added nursery schools in more recent years.
Combine this greater breadth of offering out of town schools now provide with Covid seemingly encouraging people to think about a lifestyle involving much more open space, Bonas MacFarlane has seen many families leave town earlier than planned. Obviously, a new era of working flexibility means professional parents no longer have to worry about missing too many bath times, breakfasts or birthday parties. Despite what one might have predicted pre-pandemic, many UK independent schools, particularly those out-of-town, are reporting two of their busiest years to date in terms of pupil numbers and indeed admission applications. So with families leaving London earlier than planned as others still deciding to move out having previously not entertained the thought, are you really leaving the famed hot-house reputation often linked with London and other other city day schools? Or are you jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire?
Whilst you may be forgiven for thinking that the above might mean that admissions criteria and competition for places could be increasing outside of London, it appears at least for now that this is not the case. Such schools are doing a fabulous job of sticking to their principles and ethos amidst this renewed burst of interest. In fact as London schools’ reputations for a high level of academic selection only seem to harden with each advancing year, the countryside alternative remains deeply alluring. But, what are you and your family gaining with such a move, what might you lose? Will you become even more of an Uber/Bolt/Free Now-driver as you ferry your sprogs across the rolling hills of Blighty from playdate to soccer club or from homework club to horse-riding lessons?
Firstly, it is important to remember that for the first time in nearly two years you can safely visit most schools in the daringly analogue in-person format. Many families I have worked with in the Covid era effectively chose their schools blind over the last two September entry points save for a digital tour and online interviews. So as ever it is crucial you do the most comprehensive research you can manage. Schools will often go further and arrange for you to speak to current parents who have recently relocated from London. In this way you can quiz them more about the practicalities of life in the area, not just what the school offers but an insight into living in your new community as a whole. Such research will not only help you with the pretty tricky job of school selection but also inform where you hunt for the new family home and much more besides.
The immediate realisation that I hope you will have when considering countryside school options is the sheer variety on offer, a range which London simply cannot compete with. Most of us will be thinking about the open spaces that our children will suddenly have at their disposal, this tends to lead to a greater amount of time for outdoor activities in general, especially competitive sports that one finds on offer at these schools. In turn this tends to lend itself to these schools having a more balanced approach to your child’s education beyond the city dweller’s obsession with academics. Do not confuse this feature with a lower standard of academic achievement, far from it.
You primary concern will likely to be when is the right time to move given your family’s current situation, age of children etc. Londoners will have a built in fear of admissions deadlines and so forth but you will find countryside schools in general to be farm more flexible. They are after all typically dealing with much lower numbers of registration than their city-based equivalents. Don’t take the information on the schools’ websites for granted, always contact the schools directly and start the conversation about your children early on. You will find most schools are extremely accommodating and will go out of their way wherever possible to make you application journey run smoothly. Also once you are directly in touch with a school, you are by default putting yourself on the list should unexpected opportunities arise for you to apply. So long as you don’t make a nuisance of yourself schools will be delighted to speak to you about worthwhile concerns and admissions intricacies.
Some of you will be forgiven for thinking that the admissions processes of the rural schools seem at first glance to be just as comprehensive if not as selective as the London iterations. Not so I would argue, yes admissions test pervade still but these schools will be looking far beyond these test results and considering each applicant on an individual basis. This might seem a given but given the vast numbers of applicants to London prep day schools, individual attention is not always something that can be afforded to each family applying. Quite understandably there are of course rural schools that are just as selective as top London preparatory schools. But outside of urban conurbations these schools are the exception not the rule, almost the inverse of what one finds in London. If you have a child who is likely to thrive in a highly academic environment, there will still be excellent options for you out in the sticks!
Often the talk around relocating to the countryside is focussed on what your children (and the whole family) are gaining rather than any meaningful discussion of what you might be losing by exiting the city. So let’s not turn our backs on the great schools of London so readily. I mentioned above the taxi driver persona that rural parents might often feel, and it is nothing to be ignored. Playdate transportation will take far longer, ferrying from school to clubs, a distinct lack of activities walking distance from your front door are all slightly mundane examples but merit your consideration. The variety of school field trips and cultural activities might be less prevalent amongst schools whose reach doesn’t stretch to a major town or city where access and selection will be at a maximum. That said, one might argue that children might benefit rather more from that cultural input in later years after prep school.
Another consideration that I have witnessed families slightly ignore when ‘moving out’ is senior school progression. If you have already decided that senior school will be a boarding affair for your progeny then this element loses some of its relevance. For those of you wanting to continue with day options in your children’s senior school years then where you choose to base yourself now will have a very real impact on your senior school selection come Year 7/9. Please do not leave this stone unturned as you may not be keen to relocate all over again!
As with all advice around schools that I find myself espousing, the headline is contact the individual schools and start the conversation soonest, there is nothing to fear by exploring. Also seek out professional advice and talk to friends who have taken the plunge. Do not panic about the individual admissions processes which may seem just as daunting as found in town schools! I can assure you that the results are often interpreted in very different ways by our rural schools. Do get in the car and visit, not just to see schools but to recce the environs and get your thoughts together about where to live. Before that of course, do visit the Independent Schools Show in London in November. Back to full scale after two years in the pandemic wilderness, over 200 schools from around the country and within London will be exhibiting to parents. There you will be able to make real inroads to your school selection, whilst also getting the unique opportunity to directly compare London and rural school choices. As ever, Bonas MacFarlane will ever present and ready to discuss your situation in person.
by William Petty, Bonas MacFarlane