Boom time for the thoroughly modern prep

The Telegraph, 16.05.15, after the challenges of the late 2000s, independent pupil numbers are at record highs. But what is life like at the entry level now? HMC member Leo Winkley, headmaster of St Peter's School, York is quoted.

The 21st-century prep school is a surprisingly nimble beast, constantly adapting to meet the needs of parents and – often more importantly – the secondary schools that the children will be heading off to.

For many parents, of course, prep school remains a means to a valuable end: secondary school. Since 2010 Leo Winkley has been Head Master of St Peter’s, York, a co-educational day and boarding school founded in AD 627, which boasts of being the “fourth oldest school in the world”.

It has a prep and pre-prep school, so Winkley is well placed to see the prep situation from both sides.

“Sometimes the communications can be a double-edged sword, especially with the transition from prep school to secondary, where you want pupils to be taking responsibility for themselves,” he says. “Our focus has shifted from lectures to a broader sense of managing risk – whether it’s about cyber security or sex education.”

Winkley argues that a bigger change than technology, over the past 15 years, has been the expansion of diversity. There are more bursaries and access projects; pupils who would not have had the chance to go before are being offered financial support, while parents who might have been put off by the stuffy traditional image of schools are being shown that this is no longer the case.

“Partly it’s because of a change in the broader culture, but also schools have been encouraged to be more open about who they admit,” he says. “There is far greater diversity now than there was – of ethnicity, economic and social background, personality. What we’re looking for at 13+ is character: an appetite for learning, whether they are sharers – sharing their enthusiasm for kite-making or whatever – and whether they are engaged with the community.”

It is surely significant for what their prep school is trying to achieve that St Peter’s has simplified the entrance exam for the senior school, and put more weight on the interview. “People can be coached for exams but that’s not necessarily what you’re looking for,” Winkley says. “You want to crack open the veneer and see what the person inside is like.”

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