Testing Times

Testing Times

A parents’ guide to the 11+ and secondary school entrance exams by Jenny Booth

Getting your child into a selective London secondary school takes organisation but is perfectly do-able, according to a group of south west London mums who shared their experiences with Time&Leisure. Take inspiration from Wimbledon mum Anne, whose daughter was offered places everywhere she applied for: the top grammar school Tiffin Girls, and highly rated private schools Wimbledon High, Emanuel and Putney High.

“She’s no genius child, just a normal, bright child,” said Anne, proudly. “Basically the parents need to be told to calm down, as over the past few years it has all been built up into this nightmare and we didn’t have that experience at all.”

When do you need to start worrying about schools?

Anne started visiting schools in Year 2, recording her thoughts on an Excel spreadsheet. Few parents are that systematic, but it’s useful to begin in the summer between Year 3 and Year 4. Most grammar schools hold their open evenings in June and July, other schools mainly in September.

Anne didn’t take her daughter with her until she knew which schools met the family’s priorities (single sex, short journey, down-toearth atmosphere), and by October of Year 5 the family had its shortlist. “The one thing I didn’t obsess about was exam results,” said Anne. “If the school is right for your child, they will do well.”

Choices do need to match your child’s abilities. The grammar schools in Sutton and Kingston boroughs are among the hardest to get into. “We were advised to choose one dream school, one you’d be happy to settle for, and one banker you’re sure you can get into,” says Fiona, a Colliers Wood mother whose heart was set on Trinity School in Croydon for her son.

To tutor or not to tutor?

One important step is to ask around for the best local tutor, and get your child’s name on their waiting list, according to Anne. Expect to pay £35-£75 an hour for one-to-one tuition in the tutor’s home throughout Year 5. Small group tutoring is cheaper, and suits some children better.

It’s a lot of money, so is it necessary? “What tutoring allows the child to do is to come up to their full potential,” says private tutor Anise Davids. “It is essential for state primary pupils, because entrance exams will include elements of the Year 7 Maths syllabus, and no primary school will have got that far by the start of Year 6.” Be reassured: children’s performance in school will benefit.

“My daughter has become much more confident in Maths since the tutoring,” says Amal, whose daughter applied for Tiffin Girls. “It has really helped her.” For those worried about the pressure, the latest research suggests no link between tutoring and later mental health issues.

It is possible to tutor your child yourself if you have the right rapport. The website has helpful advice, says Anise, and the Bond revision books are useful.

What tests will they sit?

There is no universal 11+ exam in south west London. Each school sets their own assessments, and requirements often change. English and Maths are the main subjects, and your tutor will concentrate on them. Many schools also set Verbal Reasoning. Most private schools have dropped NonVerbal Reasoning, but it remains part of the Wandsworth Test, controlling access to high-performing selective state schools such as Graveney. It used to be said you couldn’t cram for reasoning tests, but techniques can be tutored, and regular practice is needed to pick up speed at answering questions.

When do they sit the exams?

It’s up to you to register your child for the entrance tests at your chosen schools, from May in Year 5, and to pay the registration fees. The exams start in September of Year 6 with the Wandsworth Test, soon followed by the Sutton and Kingston grammar school exams where up to 2,000 children cram into the exam hall of each school. Most candidates are eliminated in the first round, and only a few hundred are invited to sit the – much harder – Stage 2 tests two weeks later.

Wandsworth Test scores come back quickly, but applicants aren’t told whether they have got into grammar school until March. Tiffin will not offer you a place unless you list them first on the schools Common Application Form (CAF). This left Amal and her daughter in a quandary. Confident she had qualified for a place at Graveney, they were afraid they might lose it if they put Tiffin first on the CAF form, and potentially be left with nothing. They chose safety first, opted for Graveney, and have never regretted it.

Private schools hold their entrance exams close together in January. The mums we spoke to were all careful not to over-pressure the child by making them try for too many. Ten, as some families attempt, is likely to lead to meltdown.

Schools interviews take various forms. For most it is a relaxed chat about reading and hobbies, but more academic schools like Sutton Grammar may ask about politics. Wimbledon High is pioneering an assessment day with creative tasks.

When can I make a final decision?

Private schools make offers in February, but most families won’t know the full picture until March 1 with the CAF results. Now is the time for family discussion, as priorities can change radically once the offers are in. For Fiona, the travel distance and the £20,000 a year commitment of fees loomed larger, and she accepted a place for her son at Graveney, their closest school. For kids, the impression the school made during the tests is often key. Anne’s daughter is now happily attending Putney High.

What if I want to get into Eton?

For some 11-year-olds, school selection is still in the future. Eton and other famous private schools still select only at 13. Philippa was told by her son’s prep school head that her sensitive son would benefit from staying on and being a big fish in a small pond.

“Frankly it has the advantage of keeping the fees down for two more years,” added Philippa. For entry at 13, children sit subject exams in Year 8. This has prompted concerns from parents that children are effectively sitting their GCSEs three years early. Schools have responded by introducing a pre-test, sat in Year 7 or earlier in Year 8. On the basis of the pre-test, schools make a conditional offer of a place subject to results in the exams, and ask parents to pay a deposit (about one term’s fees). Pre-tests are playing an ever larger part in selection. Entry at 13 is a dwindling trend: Kings College Wimbledon is shifting towards entry at 11. Other private schools offer multiple entry points, at age 10, 11, 12 and 13.

Timeline: Entrance Exams at 11+

June: Start visiting schools
Put your child’s name on the waiting list for a tutor

January: Consider beginning tutoring
June: Take your child to visit schools. Check what type of tests they set

Sept: Begin tutoring by now
Oct: Finalise your shortlist of schools
May-July: Register your child for entrance exams, and apply for special aptitude tests Submit end of Year 5 reports to private schools

Sept: Sit Wandsworth Test
Grammar school entrance exams begin
Interviews for some private schools
October: Deadline to submit London Common Application Form for a place at a state school
Nov: Admissions banding tests for non-selective state schools
Stage 1 entrance exams for Wimbledon High
January: Entrance exams for most independent schools
Creative assessment day for Wimbledon High candidates
February: Private schools make offers of places
March: Families notified of state school places via CAF
Unsuccessful applicants for popular schools remain on waiting list.

Factfile: Exams Advice

• Control your own anxiety as a parent. Don’t put pressure on your child, or overwork them
• Don’t buy tuition books two levels too hard for them; start at their actual level
• Seriously consider hiring a tutor, particularly if your child is at state school, and start tuition in plenty of time
• Little and often is best for homework and past papers. Don’t forget to work on vocabulary
• Check the entry requirements, and ensure that you’ve registered for the exams, including any potential scholarships
• Leave clear space in the family timetable in the weeks before exams. No big holidays and no dangerous sports (risk of broken writing arms)
• No cramming the night before. A favourite supper and early bed • Arrive at the exam in good time in a relaxed frame of mind
• Make exam days into treat days by going out for lunch and having fun afterwards
• Keep talking to your child and checking in with how they are doing.