The death of the gap year, the growth of the PSB and how ‘character’ got onto the syllabus: Five things every parent needs to know about their children’s education

Education is changing — and rightly so, in a world where the pace of change is unprecedented — but it's not always easy for parents to keep up with everything. Lucy Higginson explains five of the big decisions parents and children will have to face, and shares expert advice on which path to take.

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Down with CE, up with PSB

The latest acronym to bamboozle prep-school parents is the PSB — the Pre-Senior Baccalaureate, though sometimes referred to as the Prep School Baccalaureate — which will be the qualification of choice in some 40 schools by autumn. It promises to develop and measure a broader range of skills — music, design & technology and sport, for example — than the traditional Common Entrance (CE) exam.

Pupils will study much the same core curriculum as that of CE, but the PSB aims to develop the softer skills employers and secondary schools say they want: communication, leadership, independence, reviewing and improving, thinking and learning.

‘Senior schools are looking for these soft skills more and more — how children interpret, think critically and so on,’ explains William Goldsmith, head of St George’s School Windsor Castle, which is moving to the PSB. ‘We’re not changing what we teach, only how we teach those skills we know are crucial for employability.’

Let’s get flexible, from Saturday school to weekly boarding

It’s no secret that full boarding is becoming an increasingly hard sell. Apart from the cost, sending children ‘away’, particularly pre-teens, troubles today’s parents. This term, traditional Buckinghamshire prep school Caldicott allowed Years 4 and 5 to board weekly for the first time.

‘Saturday school has taken a back seat because of both parents working, commuting and wanting more family time at weekends,’ agrees Jeremy Wyld, head of St Hugh’s prep in Lincolnshire, ‘but we’ve seen a real uptake in ad hoc boarding.’

‘The maximum children board now is two or three nights a week,’ adds Susi Blithe, a houseparent at Northamptonshire prep Beachborough. ‘The secondary schools we feed are dropping weekly boarding in favour of flexi, too.’ Even Wellington College allows pupils to go home almost every week, despite its prospectus claim that it is ‘not a weekly-boarding school’.

Death of the gap year

The traditional ‘gap yah’ is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. More sixth-formers are content to press straight on to university and those who do take a year out are using it very differently. In a white-hot job market, they aim to support degree choices and career aspirations, such as developing language skills or working with wildlife. Cost is a factor, as is the increased number of internships on offer.

‘The change I’ve noticed is people wanting to go away for a shorter time. Volunteering has dropped and the growth now is in two- and three-week programmes involving some culture and adventure,’ says Jane Mclellan of Real Gap Experience.

Training for character

Like it or not, this is no longer incidental to school life; last year, OFSTED announced that it will monitor how schools ‘develop character’. Although many of us assume that the hurly-burly of team selections, debating, community service, expeditions and other aspects of independent-school life ensure children grow up rounded and grounded, this — apparently — is not enough.

Last term, Eton hosted a conference to ‘consider character education from theory through to delivery’. For co-host Julia Harrington, headmistress of Queen Anne’s School Reading and founder of educational neuroscience research centre BrainCanDo, it’s about ‘developing your inner compass and your own resources’.

Such efforts may seem heavy handed when co-curricular life is so rich. ‘But [character development] doesn’t only come through co-curricular work and we have to look at what we can do to improve it,’ says Mrs Harrington. ‘We need it to be an everyday part of life, not only something you learn from a hillside expedition.’

For her, the purpose of the Eton conference was to inform teachers about the adolescent brain, how bad habits and negativity spread through peer groups — ‘so much attitude of mind is catching’.

Not going to university

As business leaders increasingly find that graduates are woefully unprepared for working life and students become more dissatisfied with the cost and contact hours of a British degree, ‘uni’ is not the only way. Those who can afford it look to the US and others bypass university altogether, encouraged by the rise in prestigious schemes and degree apprenticeships offered by firms such as PWC, KMPG and Deloitte.

‘University is a big financial decision,’ says Carole Hall, head of careers at Sheffield Girls’ and a careers consultant across the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST). ‘Some of these degree apprenticeships with global companies can put you in a fantastic position.’

Charlie Steel bypassed university after Eton, when work experience at a headhunting firm turned into an internship and, ultimately, a job offer. ‘I’ve never regretted it,’ he says. ‘I was quite nervous about being judged for not having a qualification, but it encouraged me to work hard and time is on your side — I’m usually the youngest person at my level.’

‘Companies are getting better at advertising themselves in the right places, using websites such as www.notgoingtouni.co.uk, and careers advisers are better informed,‘ adds Mrs Hall, although she warns: ‘The best ones are massively competitive.’