A parents' guide to choosing a progressive school


We explore the high achieving alternative schools around the UK that offer a forward-thinking approach to how children learn and are tested including:

• Fewer exams 
• More time outside 
• Later start times
• Progressive curriculum 

Here at School Guide we’re all about finding the right school for your particular child. We want to help you find a school where your child’s individuality will be celebrated and where they will thrive. We all know how different each child can be, so it makes sense that they will need different things from schools. Parents also have their own values and views on what is important when looking for a school for their child. 

With so many different needs and priorities, we’re always excited to see schools doing things slightly differently and coming up with innovative new ways to provide children with a broad and inspiring education. Educational research is continually providing educators with a better understanding of how children learn best and it’s good to see this feeding through into the development of new and improved ways of doing things.  

Here are just some examples of the new approaches that schools are offering.

A different approach to entrance exams

In a refreshing change from private schools entrance exams, some schools are assessing children on the basis of existing academic information, reports from teachers and through observing children at fun filled exploratory days at the school. For some children, particularly those who don’t perform at their best in exams or find them very stressful, this seems to offer a more rounded, less pressured approach.  

One school taking this approach is the London Park School Clapham, part of an exciting new group of London secondary schools that are aiming to offer a more dynamic, forward thinking approach to education. They are made up of two co-ed senior schools LPS Mayfair and the new LPS Clapham, both of which feed through to a sixth form, LPS Sixth in Victoria. LPS Clapham will be moving into newly renovated school buildings, overlooking Clapham Common by summer 2024. 

Instead of entrance exams they aim for what they describe as ‘a more personal and humane’ admissions process and take the time to get to know students by inviting them to their Discovery Days. They extend this innovative approach to their broad, skills based school curriculum and aim to offer a ‘Breath of Fresh Air’ into educaton with their modern, innovative and flexible approach.

Alternatives to GCSEs 

Several leading private schools have taken the decision to move away from GCSEs, by reducing the number that their students take and replacing them with alternative qualifications, that they feel offer more scope to challenge their students and enable them to learn more creatively.

Latymer Upper School, an independent school in Hammersmith with outstanding academic results, announced in September 2023 that they were dropping all GCSEs apart from English and Maths and replacing them with their own qualifications. The progressive Bedales school has long offered its own qualifications, Bedales Assessed Course, BACs, alongside a core of five GCES. The prestigious Sevenoaks school also offers their own qualifications. These new qualifications aim to encourage inquisitiveness and independent thought and are offered in a broad range of subjects. 

Even where schools are sticking with GCSEs, there is a desire to update the curriculum and focus on a broader range of skills such as critical thinking, creativity and communication, that will better prepare students for the future workplace. For example London Park Schools aim to provide an innovative curriculum focusing on ‘experiential education, problem solving skills, and design thinking.’ 

This emphasis on offering an increased breadth and more skills based learning is also shown by more schools moving towards offering the broader International Baccalaureate either instead of, or alongside, A Levels. 

More outdoor learning

There has been an increasing awareness of the importance of spending time outdoors, particularly for children. Most primary schools now offer some form of outdoor education, particularly for younger students. This is often in the form of Forest School type learning in their own outdoor areas, something many schools are investing in, or out in the community.  

There is now more appreciation that time in nature is beneficial to children of all ages and secondary schools are also increasingly offering a incredibly broad range of outdoor learning and sporting activities to their students. For example, Malvern College in Worcestershire takes advantage of its unique location nestled into the Malvern Hills, by offering its students opportunities for mountain biking, white water canoeing, mountaineering and a wide range of adventurous outdoor activities in the beautiful surrounding countryside of the river Wye and the Brecon Beacons. The school uses outdoor activities to teach a broad range of skills including teamwork, risk management, leadership, communication skills and independence, culminating in their annual ‘Hunted’ challenge.  

Another way schools encourage children to spend more time outdoors and link their learning to the environment, is through an ever increasing range of school trips. London Park School Clapham's ambition to inspire students to become 'global citizens' has seen them curate an impressive list of experiential trips. These include an expedition on a tall ship in the Mediterranean to study maritime conservation as well as a trip to the Alps to learn about global climate change.  

Changing the timing of the school day

Research into teenagers' development continues to show that their brains and body clocks are different to those of adults. There are hormonal reasons why they tend to stay awake later at night and want to lie in in the mornings. This won’t come as a surprise to most parents of teenagers struggling to get them out bed in the mornings!

This means that the traditional timings of the school day, whilst convenient for the rest of society, really don’t work for teenagers. In light of this, some schools are trying to take the teenage body clock into account by starting the school day later. North Bridge House Senior School in Islington has done this by introducing a ‘late start’ approach to the school day, starting the first lesson at the time the second lesson used to start. In the sixth form this happens every day. In the rest of the school it is only on Wednesdays to give students a rest in the middle of the week. The extra lesson time missed has been made up by changes to INSET days and adding some extra personalised teaching time to the day. 

On-line and hybrid learning 

Hybrid learning, using a mix of in person and on-line learning, has become increasingly popular since schools were forced to switch to online learning during the pandemic. Although most children missed the social interaction of learning at school, some children preferred learning from home and this led to a demand for more on-line and hybrid learning. 

Several organisations, including Harrow School, Kings Interhigh and Academy 21 now offer online learning programmes for children who for various reasons aren’t managing in traditional schools. 

Other schools such as Portland Place Hybrid School, offer an innovative mix of the two approaches and their students are achieving impressive results.  They prioritise the importance of individualised learning and of their students’ mental health and believe that ‘happiness gets results’. Students are encouraged to attend school one or two days a week for practical subjects and PE activities and spend the rest of the time learning online in small groups. 

The previous head of Portland Place Hybrid School, Ambreen Baig, is now working with Duke’s Education, to set up a larger school offering hybrid education to children up to the sixth form, which will open in September 2024. They hope that this personalised approach will help to tackle the huge problem of school absenteeism and provide a solution for children who aren’t thriving in mainstream education. 

Looking forward

We’ve been inspired by the number of innovative approaches schools are currently using to provide new opportunities for students. We're excited to see what other changes in education might come out of new research and the application of new technologies.