Pushy parents a threat to prep schools, says Prince George’s former headteacher

Prince George Prince William Prince of Wales education Royal family - Chris Jackson/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Prince George Prince William Prince of Wales education Royal family - Chris Jackson/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Pushy parents have become a threat to prep schools, Prince George’s former headmaster has warned.

Ben Thomas, the head of Thomas’s Battersea in south London, said that prep schools are “increasingly reliant on highly affluent, highly focused parents who expect results”.

He said that the focus of these parents on admissions to selective private secondary schools means that “the prep school curriculum is in danger of being reduced to preparation for competitive entrance examinations in English and maths”.

In an essay for a new edition of a book titled The State of Independence, Mr Thomas said that “taken to extremes, the very purpose of prep schools is under threat”.

Instead of obsessing over entrance exams, children aged 10 to 13 should be free to “imagine, explore and create”, he said.

There are more than 600 prep schools in the UK. Fee increases have meant they have become increasingly out of reach for middle-class families.

Ben Thomas Thomas’s prep school education
Ben Thomas Thomas’s prep school education

Mr Thomas said: “With school fees in England up by nearly 100 per cent since 2003, parents’ expectations are, not unreasonably, sky high. The days of the laid-back, hands-off middle-class parent, if they ever existed, are long gone.”

He said that private schools “are already almost entirely reliant on the nation’s top one per cent of earners”.

He continued: “Parents choosing private schools now are highly educated, highly discerning and very often buying into such an expensive product for a very specific purpose: the educational advancement of their child and a firm foot in the door for the next stage of their education.

“‘I pay therefore I expect’ has fast become a mantra that is hard for any but the most confident (and secure) of schools to dare to contradict.”

Mr Thomas warned that prep schools are in danger of becoming “glorified sausage factories, churning children through high stakes exams, completely at odds with the growing national debate about the value of examinations and the call from employers to do far more to nurture in our young the skills of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking”.

He said that a growing number of prep school parents, who are “themselves employed in highly competitive industries”, are engaging tutors for their children at an early age, “to secure a perceived advantage in the race to gain admission for their child to the best senior schools, to secure a place in the best universities, to secure the best possible prospects in the job market”.

‘Secondary schools fuel parents’ anxiety’

Mr Thomas criticised secondary schools for fuelling parents’ anxiety around admissions.

He said: “Senior schools cry out, on the one hand, that they do not want to encourage the recruitment of over-anxious, over-prepared young robots.

“At the same time, the same schools are quite happy to let slip the number of applicants per place, by way of illustrating their popularity – hence feeding the anxiety of junior school parents.”

Prince George started in reception at Thomas’s Battersea in 2017 and was later joined by Princess Charlotte. Termly fees at the school start at £7,250 for children aged four to seven.

Last year, the Prince and Princess of Wales moved their children to Lambrook School, a private co-educational prep school in Berkshire, after relocating to Windsor.

‘Fees have become horrendous’

Lord Lucas and Dingwall, the editor of the Good Schools Guide, argued in a separate essay in The State of Independence that prep school fees are too high.

He said: “Fees have become horrendous, and there seems no easy way down.”

However, Lord Lucas said there was “lots of room for reductions”, citing the Independent Grammar School in Durham, which opened in 2018 and charges £3,600 per year.

Emma Goldsmith, the headteacher of the Dragon School in Oxford, one of Britain’s most prestigious prep schools, warned that “the unregulated world of tutoring is an unhealthy obsession within some prep school communities”.

She said the increase in the involvement of parents, exacerbated by the pandemic, was a challenge, adding: “Parental support is essential as schools want to work in tandem in the best interests of the child.

“However, we need to take care that boundaries are in place. Parents must be well informed about their child’s progress, while understanding that the school cannot provide a unique and bespoke offering for each child.”

Mr Thomas, who is also a principal of the Thomas’s group, which runs schools in Clapham, Fulham and Kensington, said that prep schools must consider how to tackle issues such as “affordability”, “relevance”, and “managing parental expectations”.

He said they need to safeguard “the kind of childhood which they were founded to promote”.