Words in the News


Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

News reports this week showed the Queen’s four-year-old great-grandson Prince George looking slightly apprehensive as he started at a South London prep school (fees £18,000 a year). Readers unfamiliar with the British education system might wonder exactly what a prep school is and how it differs from the schools attended by the vast majority of those who may one day be the young royal’s subjects.

In the UK a prep school is traditionally understood to be a private school for children between the ages of seven and thirteen, although many now take children from the school starting age of four or five. In the US it refers to a private school for children over the age of eleven. In both cases the purpose is to prepare children for the next stage of education: generally entry to a public school or other privately run school in the UK, and to college in the US. In both cases prep stands for preparatory, in that the children are being prepared for a subsequent stage in their education, entry to which is often highly competitive.

Prep has other meanings, some education-related, some not. While students in state-funded institutions do homework, those in private schools often do prep, or preparation for the next day’s classes. To prep for something means to prepare for it, while the noun can also mean preparation.

The social exclusivity of US prep schools gave birth to the noun and adjective preppy, the noun referring to the kind of well-educated and well-heeled person who might have attended a prep school and the adjective to the type of traditional, expensive clothes they are thought to favour. A prepper, on the other hand, is a person of quite a different kind. This mainly American noun refers to someone who is preparing for some unnamed but anticipated catastrophe, for example by stockpiling food and honing survival skills.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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