15 Tips for Parents at 11+ Entry

Independent Junction



A meeting place for parents and prospective parents of children in the independent school sector in the UK

15 Tips for 11+ Parents

The following advice is drawn from Chapters One and Five of The 11+ and 13+ Handbook, by Victoria Barker.

    1. For those entirely new to the 11+ admissions process for independent schools, it is worth knowing from the outset that it is not easy. The process of choosing which schools to apply to, and then preparing and sitting for the schools' examinations and interviews, is highly labour intensive - both for the child and for the parent or guardian. School visits take hours and it is often necessary to visit a school more than once to get a real sense for whether it is right for you. It is also worth knowing that the process can be very stressful - especially the days spent waiting for the envelopes to arrive with acceptances or rejections.
    2. If you are looking for an independent senior school in the UK, the first place to look is in the mirror, as it were. Start by considering what is important to you in your child's schooling. The first task is to set the parameters of what is possible for your child's schooling: practically, financially, emotionally, academically and in other ways that are particular to you. At the earliest stages of this process, you should consider the entire family context and the needs of all its members. Every family member has a stake in the decision, even though it centres on the one child. Try and identify what these stakes are. For all families, it is probably best to devote time to a discussion of these issues, rather than simply assume that everyone is on the same wavelength.
    3. Gather information on schools - and on the 11+ process as a whole - from every source available, without putting too much store by any single source. For many '11+ parents', this will be their first experience of feeling that their child's future lies in the hands of others. In this situation, it is easy to be misled by other people's opinions. Take other people's advice 'on notice' - whoever they may be, however authoritative or well-meaning. You may be misled by the principal of your child's present school just as easily as by your neighbour. When someone tells you that a school is no good, remember that their criteria in making this assessment may be directly opposed to your own. (And it is also worth noting that advice does not become more valuable simply because you have paid for it.)
    4. The only way to assess whether a school is appropriate for your child is to visit it - and often more than once. You need to see it in action. You need to form an opinion of its cohort of teachers and pupils. You need to speak to the Head of the school and to the teachers in person. Most importantly, you need to get a feel for the ethos of the school: the values that will be passed on to your child, not merely by the school itself, but by the children that your child will be spending his or her time with. Many schools have distinctive characters and are quite happy to speak about this character to parents who enquire. You will find that you have intuitive responses to the schools you visit, one way or the other, for reasons that are sometimes difficult to pin down. These intuitions are probably a better guide than other people's advice.
    5. Most parents at 11+ apply to more than one school - unless there are no alternatives or they are very confident that their child will be accepted at their chosen school. The result is that every school for which you apply will in all likelihood receive more applications than there are places. The multiple applications make the statistics look much more daunting than they actually are. Do not let yourself be put off by the figures of how many applicants a given school has. (Don't even bother to ask.) If your child is truly the type of child that the school wants, they will find room for him or her. There is at present a place for every child who wants one in the UK independent sector.
    6. As far as academic standards are concerned, you need to do your best to assess the academic potential of your child - being as candid with yourselves as optimism allows. The potential of a ten-year-old is often very difficult to ascertain, even by those who know the child best. However, there are ramifications for aiming either too low or too high in determining which schools may be available to you, so you need to do it. Aim too low, and you rule out excellent schools that would happily take your child. Aim too high, and you may find the 11+ process a very depressing experience - and your child's sense of failure may impact on his or her later prospects. You need a reasonable assessment, so that you do not waste time, money and effort on schools that are not appropriate.
    7. If your child does intensive exam preparation, their final mark many improve by as much as 15-20 per cent from the marks your child may achieve prior to that preparation. Thus, your assessment of your child's academic potential should include an assessment of his or her ability to prepare for the 11+ exams. If your child is clever, but is unwilling or unable to spend time preparing for the exams, then he or she may not perform as well as another child of lesser ability who is well-prepared. Inversely, if your child does averagely well at school, but is prepared to put in six months of solid work leading up to the entrance exams, then you can apply for schools further along the academic spectrum. The schools argue that they are looking for academic 'potential', but a large part of such potential is the willingness to learn. The exams are of a specific nature - particularly the reasoning tests which are supposed to be testing inherent ability rather than schooling. You will read that your child does not need to be (or cannot be) prepared for such tests. Stop and think: surely a child will perform better in any test situation where they have the confidence of knowing what to expect? But note also what the senior school Heads warn about 'inflated scores' at 11+: if your child enters a school on marks that are 'inflated' by intensive preparation, the child will be under constant pressure to maintain these high grades throughout their senior schooling.
    8. The next (and even more difficult) task is to assess the relative ability of your child's competitors in the entrance examinations. Roughly, the position of the school on the league tables coincides with the competitiveness of the entry process - and hence the academic standard of applicants. (Though there are other issues which affect competitiveness, such as prestige, facilities, the availability of other school in the area and so on.) You are perfectly entitled to ask the schools for guidance about what sort of marks they are expecting. However, most schools are reluctant to give out this information and, of course, the entry process is competitive: there is no 'pass mark' that can be stipulated in the abstract.
    9. How many schools you apply to depends entirely on your child. Do not overburden your child with too many exams, for fear they may 'burn out' in the very exam you care most about. If your child does not have a great degree of confidence, you may choose to apply only for schools where you expect to succeed in gaining an offer of admission. Consider the impact on a child's later schooling if they feel their school is 'second best' or that they should by rights be somewhere else. You need to do a careful calculation here, because it is also a good idea to apply for at least one school that is difficult to get into, just in case you are underestimating your child's ability (or simply get lucky). Give yourself backup, for your own peace of mind. Add a school to your list that you are almost certain that you will be accepted into. However, if you are aiming for one school and treating another as back-up, it is best that the second school is not advertised in this way to your child. Find a reason to prefer every school that you apply for.
    10. Do not rely on your child's present school to prepare your child for 11+ entrance exams - no matter how good it is. Your child's schools may provide a great deal of preparation for these exams, but the specific form of preparation that your child needs may not be addressed. (Perhaps there are children in the class with more pressing needs.) You need to establish for yourself exactly what your child is doing by way of preparation and whether it is enough. Take a close interest in your child's work, if for no other reason than your child will then be aware that it is important to you. Your child needs all the help that he or she can get and you should be in a position to offer it. Remember that many of your child's competitors will have the benefit of their parents' input.
    11. You need to be very clear about the specific tests required for entry into each school for which you apply. The standard requirement is for reports and a reference from your child's present school, an interview with the head or one of the senior teachers in the school (either singly or in a small group), an examination in English, an examination in Mathematics and, often, an examination in Verbal Reasoning. A few schools have a day (or, for a boarding school, an overnight) visit with planned group activities and a very few schools add a Non-verbal Reasoning test. It is important that the child be prepared as best as possible with a sound knowledge of the form that each exam or activity may take. It is also necessary to prepare for the interview, by reading newspapers, going to the theatre, and simply sitting down and thinking about the types of answer your child might give to a wide range of interview questions.
    12. As far as exam preparation is concerned, get together a collection of materials in the subjects needed and work at them systematically. A supportive adult is need to oversee the process, but a tutor is not necessary. In general, the best practice for them is the sample papers and the past exam papers set by independent schools themselves. (A list of these, with links, is available from the 'Specimen Exam Papers' section of this website.) But each child has different strengths and weaknesses and you need to tailor your preparation program to your child's weaknesses, on the one hand, and to the specific exams he or she will sit, on the other. Find out what is required in the entry exams for your chosen schools and then set out a reasonable and achievable program of work towards them. If your child is especially weak in spelling or grammar, for example, find ten minutes to concentrate on them every day.
    13. While a parent or other adult is needed to oversee exam preparation, a tutor is neither a prerequisite to success nor any guarantee of it - despite recent publicity about how common they are. It is often better to work on practice papers systematically every day than cram for a tutor's visit once or twice a week. The academic levels at 11+ are not so high that the average parent cannot oversee the process of exam preparation. You will soon pick up the skills necessary to mark tests in English, Maths and Verbal Reasoning. Indeed, checking answers, going over mistakes and setting targets is something that you and your child can do together. You child will in all probability enjoy the attention and will know that you care enough to devote your time to his or her success.
    14. When you come to the stage of making decisions, remember that your child's desires are crucially important. Involve your child in the school visits. Take time to listen to what your child has to say and what their reasons are. Discuss your views with your child. Come to your decisions together. If you involve them in the process, they are more likely to share some responsibility for its outcome. Remember, however, that the responsibility for your child's success or failure in the entire 11+ process lies with you - not with your child, nor with his or her teachers or tutors. Both legally and morally, you are responsible for all decisions regarding your child's education.
    15. Present an upbeat face to your child. Try to make exam prep an enjoyable exercise. Do not let your stress about the 11+ process be passed on to them. Your child will not want to do the exam prep if it becomes a time of arguments or unhappiness. There is nothing inherently unpleasant in working hard - it is a matter of what you make of it. In fact, there can be a great deal of intrinsic satisfaction in mastering the skills they need to do well in these exams - quite apart from the satisfaction they will feel when they achieve what they set out to do and gain entry to a school they will be happy with.

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