As families settle back into the swing of the new academic year, many will be mindful of both recent — and looming — 11-plus examinations, the formidable academic fortress guarding admission to various secondary schools.
There are more than 190 state selective (grammar and partially selective) schools in England. These are state-funded and use academic testing to inform selection. There are also a great many private schools that set their own 11-plus entrance exams.
Faced with fierce competition, the pressure to succeed and get into the “right” school can lead to extreme stress for pupils and parents alike. Henrietta Barnett, a flagship girls’ selective school in north-west London, proudly states on its website that it receives more than 2,000 applications for around 100 places.
Whether you are frantically preparing for entry in 2018, or are in a more leisurely fashion gearing up for exams further off, here is a quick guide on what to expect and how best to prepare, while keeping anxiety at bay.
The 11-plus usually comprises tests in English and maths, plus verbal and non-verbal reasoning. The mix, format and content of tests varies from school to school.
State selective exams are often, though not always, in a multiple-choice format (partly to make marking easier), while private schools tend to prefer written answers.
This means, for example, that private school exams, unlike state selective exams, will normally require students to produce a piece of creative writing and to answer a comprehension test in full sentences. There are always exceptions, however. For example, last year the private Immanuel College, in Bushey, switched its exam provider to GL Assessment, which favours multiple-choice questions.
It is, therefore, of vital importance to be aware of the exam papers set by your preferred school(s). School websites contain valuable information, often including access to past papers.
It would also be helpful to chart up the critical dates on your calendar. Children applying for state selective schools usually sit these exams in the September of year six. Private school examinations, by contrast, most often take place in the January of year six, a full term later (although Belmont School in north-west London, for instance, holds its exams in November). Successful candidates are in most cases interviewed a few weeks after the exams.
While an interview may sound daunting to a child of 10 or 11, it is really just an opportunity for the school to gauge a child’s confidence, social skills and why they are interested in joining the school (make sure they have a good reason).
Conversation will probably involve a candidate’s favourite school subject or book and/or extra-curricular activities, providing an opportunity to impress the interviewer with any sporting or musical achievements they may have. Basic interview skills, such as shaking hands, making eye contact while doing so and not sitting until being invited to do so, will go a long way.
Most parents agree preparation for the 11-plus is essential, although some schools argue that one cannot prepare for their tests. Start early, ideally one to two years in advance.
You may choose to help your child yourself or hire a professional tutor, opting either for one-to-one tuition or group sessions. It is also advisable to attend school open days, so your child knows exactly what they are aiming for. A child who is self-motivated is more likely to succeed than one simply driven by a desire to please parents.
Focused and consistent revision over the holidays keeps up the momentum and ensures your child does not forget vital topics and exam techniques. Encourage your child to do practice papers under timed conditions, to get a sense of what to expect on the day.
Having said that, bear in mind kids do need to enjoy some free time. Relaxation is vital, otherwise they may come to resent sitting the 11-plus exams or, worse, burn out before they even get to the test.
Try not to convey your own fears and concerns to your child. Gentle encouragement and frequent praise will boost your child’s self-belief and results. Children who are calm and confident are likely to do better in exams — and life in general — than those who are stressed and anxious. Eating well and drinking lots of water is crucial for a healthy body and mind, while the importance of an early night before exams should go without saying.
Above all, please keep things in perspective. As much as you want the best academically for your child, success and achievement should not come at the detriment of your child’s health and well-being. Passing 11-plus exams are not the be all and end all — and reassuring your child you are proud of them, no matter what, is the most effective way to foster their overall long-term health and happiness.
Zac Newman is the founder and director of Newman Tuition (newmantuition.co.uk). He is a qualified teacher with an academic background in psychotherapy and counselling, 020 3198 8006