Finding The Right Path

Sarah Segrave, head of Eaton House The Manor, navigates the London independent schools’ scene.

At a recent London Parents’ Forum, Eaton House Schools met a woman who had recently relocated from Dubai. She was almost wringing her hands because her son had been placed in an independent school that the relocation agents had represented as being ‘definitely right for him.’

It wasn’t – he was miserable and bored and he needed to make new friends. She felt guilty for having believed them and extremely anxious about what to do next as she was new to London education and living for the first time in Belgravia.


Sarah Seagrave, Head of Eaton House The Manor Prep School


A complicated school landscape

It will be of no surprise to parents that the London independent school scene is both convoluted and complicated. We are blessed with some of the very finest independent schools in the country and yet the competitive nature of applications, and the need for parents to be ahead of the game in their planning, makes for what can feel like a fraught and anxiety-inducing few years.

If you are relocating from abroad the challenges can seem almost insurmountable without the necessary insider knowledge.

What ought to be seen as the golden years of childhood, have become filled with verbal reasoning exercises and a bid to secure a senior school place as early as possible. The all-through schools are looking like the perfect antidote to the desire to ‘fix’ the future schooling plans, yet without the benefit of a crystal ball, parents are having to guess what might suit their teenagers when they are still very young. 

Changing times

Fifteen years ago, parents could, with some confidence and surety, plan the path ahead for the children when the time was right. Eaton House, Summer Fields, Eton College… with the end goal of an Oxbridge college glittering on the horizon.

Today, the picture is more complicated, more time consuming, and sadly more likely to have a detrimental impact on our children’s happiness and wellbeing.

Historically, one of the joys of the traditional structure of pre-prep, prep and public schools was that one could spend a decent proportion of the time enjoying the school that one’s child was in, safe in the knowledge, that, as their children grew up, the right advice would be given in a timely fashion.

With the introduction of pre-testing at the most prestigious schools in the country a few years back, and a slight increase in 11+ places over 13+ ones, decisions about senior schools are being made much earlier. This is a particular problem for the late-developer, the summer-born child, and indeed those who have recently relocated to the UK.

The phrase, ‘there’s a school for everyone’ has a slightly hollow ring in central London if you are looking for a well-established day school for your son of average ability.

Eaton House School Boys Tug Of War

The future of the London independent school scene

So what to do? Will Brexit mean that there will be less competition for places? I very much doubt it.

Can the fees remain affordable for parents? The answer is, we always do the best we can and are mindful of what parents want and need from us.

What will be the impact if there is a change of government? This is truly something that nobody can predict. One thing is certain: parents will always want the best for their children, and for many that means an independent school.

My advice would be this:

Heads do sometimes have a tough time deciding what candidates to select, but authenticity is everything. Whatever your child really thinks, feels, knows and has experienced is the right answer. And that is good advice when applying for any school, even in an uncertain post-Brexit market.

Choose your child’s first school with the utmost care, because this will be the source of advice that you lean on to make all further decisions. If in doubt, always go with your gut feeling and the calibre of teaching staff over all other factors.  Choose a school that has the confidence to prepare children for their next schools without becoming an exam factory in the process. Life is not made up of just maths, reasoning and English.

Be both ambitious and honest about your children’s personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Don’t hire a tutor. Read to and with your children, however old they are. Take them out to lunch, travel with them, take them to the theatre, the cinema, the supermarket. Enjoy their company and remember that you will always be their first teacher and their most important champion. Let them make mistakes, but be there to point them in the right direction afterwards.

An amended version of this article was first published in School House Magazine, Spring 2019