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If you’re considering an independent education for your child, you may be undecided about the best age for them to enrol and how long they should attend for. At an all-through school, children can join from nursery age and continue right through until the end of Senior school. 

As Head of the Junior School at St Columba’s School in Kilmacolm, Alison Duncan sees many of the pupils at St Columba’s, aged 3 to 18 years, through their school career. A member of the Senior Leadership Team within the School, Alison can see first-hand how the strategic vision and journey of the education is shared across both Junior and Senior buildings and the impact that has on pupils.

We spoke to Alison to get a better understanding of an all-through education and how both the Junior and Senior schools work in unison for the good of the pupils, their families and the staff.


Tell us a little bit about your position within the school and what’s involved in your role?

“I am the Head of the Junior School which means I meet many of the pupils we have when they begin their journey in St Columba’s School, from age 3. It is a position of great privilege; I am part of these children’s daily lives from early years education through to their transition to Senior School aged 11.  

“As a member of the Senior Leadership Team within the School, the strategic vision and journey of the education we offer is shared across both Junior and Senior phase. Both the Junior and Senior schools work collaboratively together for the good of our children, our families and our staff.

Can you give a brief explanation of the term all-through school?

“All-through school education at St Columba’s means that your child has the potential to remain with us aged 3 to age 18 years. We have a shared ethos and vision across all areas of the whole School; from Early Years (age 3 and 4 years) to Senior VI, our pupils and families know what defines us and know that we provide a cohesive, consistent approach to our pastoral care, nurturing and education of children.  

“Resources, including our staff, are shared across all areas of the School which makes transition points seamless for all concerned, particularly the children. Our size is our strength; when families leave us at the end of Senior VI, there is overwhelming feedback that what we have provided for their children has been transformational in both core education and wider experiences.”

What do you consider are the biggest benefits for children attending an all-through school? 

“Transitions are minimal in nature, with the children spending their formative years with a consistent set of experiences across both Junior and Senior Schools. This ensures that children’s anxiety levels associated with change are reduced as we provide a transition that is supportive and far less daunting than moving from the junior to senior phase can be elsewhere. 

“The communication that exists between staff and parents is also one of the biggest benefits.  We aim to offer our families an experience that embraces their opinions, seeks their views and ensures any feedback required regarding their child’s academic, social or emotional progress as well as future school developments and priorities.  

“The relationship that forms between Senior VI and Junior School pupils is of the greatest importance as the younger children look up to our most responsible seniors for inspiration. Aspiration is formed early in our children and we use our status as an all-through school to ensure that every child reaches their full potential, a picture of which we begin to form from their very first day in the School.”

Is there cross-over between the junior and senior schools (e.g. specialist teachers, facilities)?

“At St Columba’s, all pupils use the same Physical Education base and facilities. This provides continuity as the pupils move through the School. The Art, Science and Music departments provide the teaching of all pupils from age 3 to age 18 which means that our children know many of our staff before moving site between Junior and Senior School. 

“Transitus is a year that bridges both Junior and Senior School. More readily understood as Primary 7 in other schools, at St Columba’s this is a year of transition with around 24% of pupils at this stage being new to the School. Based in Senior School but with 40% of the timetable run by a primary teacher and 60% delivered by secondary teachers, the children at this stage have the best of both worlds as they move from a primary model to a senior environment.”

What are the biggest misconceptions do you think parents and students have when thinking about an all-through independent education? 

“The biggest misconception regarding all-through education is that we are not outward looking; that we are happy to be in a bubble in our own world.  This could not be further from the truth.  

“At St Columba’s, we are acutely aware that our pupils need to be ready and prepared for the global environment in which they now live and will, eventually, study and work.  It is no longer the case that pupils stay within the region or country in which they were born, and our pupils must be able to compete in a global market for places at university or college, for jobs and careers, and for homes and lifestyles. 

“Within our School’s curriculum and co-curriculum, we ensure that our pupils are armed with all the necessary skills to help them not only survive but thrive in the world in which they will live, a world adults cannot even yet imagine.”

What advice would you give to parents considering an independent education for their child?

“Once children enter the Independent sector, it is rare that parents wish them to return to a more local provision. This is due to our success in putting the child at the heart of all we do and ensuring that every opportunity is afforded to them.  

“The power of an all-through School starts at the Junior level where the spirit of belonging is fostered and the journey along the School’s tailored curriculum begins. The sooner a child begins on this journey the better because early entry to the School prevents gaps in knowledge arising from a change in system or a difference in emphasis.”

Would you recommend an all-through education? 

“In an ideal world, every child’s opportunities would be the same and childhood would run smoothly without upset or concern. We do not live in an ideal world.  What all-through education offers is a stable and certain world in which your child can grow and thrive, being known as an individual from the offset. Transition points are minimised due to the whole school nature of the education system; resilience is fostered and risk taking is encouraged all whilst ensuring safety and stability. Confidence thrives as children are supported whilst also being challenged; achievement bars are set high and there is an expectation of success.” 


If you are thinking about a change of school for your child or you are just interested in finding out more about independent education in Scotland, we have lots of information for parents available to help you get started.