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All-through schools: everything you need to know

By Talk Education
19 April 2023

Pictured: Moreton Hall School


All-through schools – where children can start aged three or four and stay all the way to 18 – are a popular choice for many families. How do they work, and what are the pros and cons of investing in one seamless educational journey for your child? Read on to find out…

The most obvious benefits of the all-through model are continuity and familiarity. Pupils might stay on the same campus from nursery to sixth form, or they might ‘graduate’ from early years to junior to senior sites (more on the nuances of all-through schools later), but the ethos and philosophy of the school will remain constant. Junior school children may benefit from specialist teaching from some of the senior school staff, so they get to know your child really well – and children get to stay with the same cohort of friends right the way through their school career, often resulting in long-lasting friendships for the parents too.

Facilities and space tend to be bigger and better in senior schools, and if your child is at an all-through, chances are they’ll have access to the senior school’s sports centre, theatre or swimming pool from the get-go. And it’s not just the bricks and mortar – with all ages rubbing along together, older pupils act as valuable mentors to the little ones; helping out backstage at junior plays, learning vital leadership skills and playing an all-important big brother or sister role.

Best of all, choosing an all-through school usually means that your child cruises through those tricky 11+ or 13+ transition points, avoiding the nail-biting months of exams, interviews and decisions. Many all-through schools offer seamless transition through each stage, so once you’re in (which may well have been via an academically rigorous assessment, particularly if the all-through journey starts in Year 3), children aren’t beholden to senior school exam preparation, meaning they can focus on a delightfully broad curriculum while their counterparts at independent prep schools might have their heads down practising exam papers. That said, don’t assume you’ll get automatic transfer: most all-throughs have a traffic light system in place – so if there are any concerns about your child’s ability to keep up with the pace at the next stage (or indeed, whether the school is still the right fit), you’ll be informed well in advance.

As with everything, there are a handful of downsides too. Change can be a very good thing for some children – and a school perfectly suited to a biddable, shiny-faced six-year-old may not be right for them once the swishy-haired teenage years roll round. Think about your child’s temperament too – if there’s a chance they’ll find it overwhelming being in a large campus with facilities geared up for all ages when they’re only little, they might be better suited to a cosy, dedicated prep school. Remember, too, that independent, standalone prep schools will prepare your son or daughter for the senior school that is right for them at that specific stage of their lives – whereas many all-through schools will expect your child to stay put the whole way through, and are unlikely to prepare pupils for exit exams at 11+ or 13+.

So – now you know the basics, what are the main types of all-through school?

1. One site, with the junior and senior schools sharing the same facilities, and one senior head in charge. There’s usually a seamless transition between junior and senior departments – and there’s often an on-site nursery, too.
 

Many schools pride themselves on their all-through models, where pupils are expected to transfer from the junior to senior school (that said, there’s always a few who choose to head off to a different senior school – or one or two who are flagged up as being better suited to elsewhere). At Edgbaston High School, the junior department is entirely self-contained and has its own fully equipped science laboratory, library and two ICT suites, but is part of the same senior site – so all girls share the swimming pool, gym, sports hall and Octagon performance space. At Wolverhampton Grammar School, the junior and smart new infants schools are located adjacent to the main school building and pupils in Year 3 upwards share classrooms and facilities with the senior school. There’s automatic transition between the junior and senior schools – while there are no exams to progress between the two schools, pupils can sit for senior-schools scholarships, if they wish.


Edgbaston High School

Bancroft’s School – at the end of the Central line in Woodford Green – is an under-the-radar gem. There’s hot competition for entry to the junior school (which sits on the same site as the towered and turreted senior school), with three applications for every place, but once your child is in, they get automatic entry to the senior school at 11+. At Cranleigh School in Surrey, the prep and senior schools ‘share the same governance, ethos and admissions process – and Cranleigh Prep pupils enjoy the use of Cranleigh School’s fantastic sport, music and IT facilities and expertise’, says registrar Jane Gallie.

Not all all-throughs guarantee your child a place at the next stage, but for the most academically selective all-through schools, getting in early could be the golden ticket. At King’s College Wimbledon, the junior school is part of the same campus but totally autonomous. Here, younger pupils get a gentle, unhurried introduction to the school, so when the time comes to sit the exam and move across to the seniors –they’re more than up to the challenge.  At Queen’s College in London, the junior and senior locations are closely aligned – both physically and metaphorically, but there’s no automatic entry. While many junior pupils do move up to the senior school, they still need to pass the same exam as external applicants.


Queen's College Prep

There’s a lovely relationship between the older and younger students at Frensham Heights in Surrey, making the school very much one cohesive entity rather than two separate schools. Lessons take place in one of the main school teaching blocks from Year 4 onwards – so there’s absolutely nothing daunting about the transition to the senior department at the end of Year 6. Children sit the same entrance assessments as external candidates, but purely for setting purposes.  

 

Moreton Hall in Shropshire is a shining example of an all-girls senior school with a co-ed prep, which makes life easier for families. Moreton Hall’s junior school takes boys and girls from the ages of three to 13; from here, girls step up to the senior, while the boys are prepared for entrance exams to other top senior schools. 

2. Two different, separate sites, so children feel as though they are ‘graduating’ between schools as they get older.

Merchant Taylors’ is one example of this all-through set-up. The junior school sits prettily in its own 15-acre grounds a five-minute drive from the senior school campus, with the majority of boys whizzing up seamlessly to the heavily oversubscribed and highly selective big school at 13.  Another is Fettes Prep in Scotland; affectionately referred to as Fettes College’s little sibling. It’s the best of both worlds: small and family-friendly with access to all the facilities of a world-renowned senior school.


Fettes Prep

Some all-throughs give parents the option to pick from a family of schools. Lancing College in West Sussex has two preps – both sit a few miles along the coast from the senior school (one in Hove, the other in Worthing), allowing pupils to stay in the same school family from nursery to 18, but with the bonus of moving sites and making a whole new group of friends. ‘The teaching and learning approach, as well as the pastoral care, are closely aligned across the three schools, ensuring that pupils (and their parents) benefit from a seamless transition and from already being known in the Lancing College family,’ says Diana Cree, Lancing’s executive director of external relations.

It’s a similar situation at King’s Worcester – one of the school’s two preps, King's Hawford, is nicely rural, while the other, King's St Alban's, sits in the city centre, giving parents the opportunity to choose the setting that best suits their child.

The Wetherby group owns a number of different sites: there’s Wetherby School for boys aged four to eight (anyone with an offer in hand has the option to join Little Wetherby at two) and Wetherby Kensington (also for boys from aged four to eight), which both feed into Wetherby Prep (for boys aged seven to 13) – but also prepare pupils for external exams. The final step is Wetherby Senior, for boys aged 11 to 18 – giving pupils the option to move locations up to three times along their educational journey. The certainty of a smooth transfer between schools only adds to the attraction.


Wetherby Prep School

3. Schools that share the same foundation and close links, but still retain their own autonomy

There’s a third and somewhat more nuanced variation too: affiliated schools. These are often the result of a merger; they tend to remain autonomous yet still reap the benefits of a prep/senior partnership. Teachers and staff share knowledge and best practice, sites borrow each other’s facilities (particularly useful if one has a swimming pool and the other doesn’t, for example), co-curricular opportunities are more plentiful and finances flourish – which often has a positive impact on a school’s bursary pot too.

There’s another advantage: your child may get preferential entrance to the senior school. St Faith’s and The Leys in Cambridge share the same foundation – and while there’s no automatic transition between the two, St Faith’s pupils are offered the opportunity to secure their place at The Leys in Year 6, two years ahead of everyone else. Not only does this allow parents to breathe a sigh of relief, it also means pupils can fully enjoy their final two years of prep school.

But what if your child is happily settled at their prep yet quite clearly not destined for the affiliated senior school? No need to panic. Malvern College has two associated prep schools in the UK, Abberley Hall and The Downs. Each year, a sizable majority of Year 8 leavers from both preps head to Malvern, but there is absolutely no pressure to do so. Alastair Cook, the head of The Downs, has strong relationships with senior-school heads up and down the country, so there’s no risk of all pupils being shoehorned into Malvern – instead, he’ll bend over backwards to ensure every child ends up at the school that is right for them. And despite the fact that Abberley pupils are offered a small fee discount to Malvern (which certainly helps them go in that direction), this year, more pupils departed for Cheltenham College than Malvern.


Malvern College

Warwickshire prep Bilton Grange has long been one of the main feeders to Rugby School – about 50 per cent of pupils choose the senior stalwart 10 minutes down the road – but a few years ago, the two officially merged. With benefits to both sides (not least sharing facilities and, at Bilton Grange, more opportunities for specialist teaching), both schools have retained their own identity – and the merger neither guarantees a place for Bilton Grange children, nor prohibits families from choosing an alternative senior school.

It’s a similar story at Eagle House, which is part of the Wellington College family of schools and sits cheek by jowl with its big brother. Each year, around 60 per cent of pupils move up to Wellington, but the other 40 per cent are thoroughly prepared for some of the highest-achieving schools all over the country, whether that’s Bradfield, Sherborne, Radley or elsewhere.

If the all-through school model sounds like it might suit your child, visit our all-through schools focus page to find lots more like the ones mentioned above…