The founding fathers were all male and most owned their schools, which averaged around 50, almost all boys and all boarders. Since then preparatory schools have faced political and economic threats and have weathered two world wars. Some have closed but others have opened; over the past 50 years numbers in IAPS schools have risen from 69,000 to 117,000.
This suggests that prep schools have responded to changing demands.
But, with educational change as drastic now as it has ever been, can they respond with their former flexibility?
Recession has obviously affected independent schools. Fees are quite simply beyond the means of a growing number of parents and independent schools are in danger of pricing themselves out of the market. Costs may be cut to keep fees low, but excessive cuts result in a school nobody wants.
It is now less fashionable to send children to boarding school at an early age. That shift has little to do with the schools themselves: prep schools are immeasurably warmer and more homely, more comforting and comfortable, and more caring and happier places than some of them used to be.
Parents will find, over the coming years, that prep schools will continue to change in many ways:
They will continue to increase in size, partly because more can be offered by a larger school.
More will take children from 3 or 4 years of age, or even earlier.
They will be more flexible in the hours pupils are at school, in the length of time at a particular school, and in the choice of subjects available.
Fewer schools will take boarders and more will be co- educational.
More girls will be in IAPS schools as more parents realise daughters should be offered the same as sons.
More specialist schools will be founded for music, games, art and dyslexic teaching, and sponsored by firms standing to gain from the link.
Many schools will amalgamate - junior with junior, junior with senior, groups sharing facilities and teachers.
They will generally accept league tables and accountability.
Some will opt into the state sector, and join the 'opted out' grant-maintained state schools, thus forming a middle group, part independent and part controlled by government.
Parents searching for a prep school in 2020 could see a school taking boys and girls aged from 6 months to 14, or be looking at part of a school divided into three sections: 3-11, 11-16, sixth-form college. The school might have a minimum of 400 pupils and school hours could be from 8am until 8pm, with both teaching and pastoral staffs. It could offer weekly and full boarding in separate houses run by non-teachers who are paid according to the numbers in their care (which is how boarding started).
Parents may see the school sharing specialist staff with other schools, especially in sport, music or classics. It could belong to a group of schools reasonably close together and with a common management. One might be deliberately sporty with indoor facilities for all games; another would have a concert hall and music school; another might specialise in technology, or in serving children with special educational needs or learning difficulties.
In 2020, parents will also be different. Many of those families who have traditionally sent their children away to board will prefer to keep them at home. Others - new 'first-time buyers' of independent education - will include families in which both parents work long hours; they will need schools to look after their children from early in the morning until late at night.
Undoubtedly parents will continue to become more demanding. Greater parental choice leads naturally to the introduction of a voucher system giving parents more control over where their children are actually educated. However, giving parents greater choice is not the same as giving them greater knowledge of educational methods: educating parents will become even more important.
Technical developments mean that sophisticated equipment will be commonplace, but the quality and expertise of the teacher will continue to be of the utmost importance - as the organiser of the teaching environment, creating and providing the ideal surroundings and the atmosphere in which children are best able to learn.
Prep schools in 2020 will certainly look different and will offer a wider range of facilities. But the central core will remain: teachers who train their pupils to live alongside each other; boys and girls who make the same mistakes and laugh in the same way; heads who somehow keep it all together; and supportive parents who watch their children grow into the citizens the world so badly needs.
The writer is headmaster, Clifton College Preparatory School.
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