Selective Schools And 11+ Exams: A Survival Guide For Parents

03/12/2014 11:56 | Updated 20 May 2015


I am going to begin with the basics. My eldest son Jacob is clever. Not in a 'My son is a genius' way, which you can never quite tell if it is genuine or maternal delusion, but in a quantifiable, verifiable way. When there were levels at school he was way above where he should be and his reports are invariably straight As (except for PE, but that doesn't count).

With this in mind when we began to look into secondary schools and found the pickings were not rich. The only one that was a dead cert from our address was in the centre of a rough estate and had just closed down its sixth form due to lack of demand. This, we felt, was not the place for our clever and not very tough, little boy.

So we were left with two options: private school or a selective state school based on 11+ exams. The former was out as we have four children and do not run a hedge fund or own several Russian oil wells, so that left the latter. We have four selective schools in the surrounding area. We duly set out to tour these schools to see if they were as good as their websites boasted.

This was the first step in a journey that would be full of hot, sticky, uncomfortable and overwhelming moments. One of our local schools, in fact our nearest, is Queen Elizabeth's Boys School, which just happens to be the number one school for results in the UK. As such its open day attracts thousands and has to be managed by the local police it is so busy.

After queuing to get in we sat in a boiling hall for over an hour to listen to the headmaster tease us with exam results, university places, exotic school trips and amazing facilities and reveal that only the crème de la crème would get a taste of these bounties as usually 2000 boys sat for the 180 coveted places. We left feeling despondent without bothering to do the school tour.

We soon realised that the odds were stacked against us at every selective school as demand outstrips supply at a ratio of about 100 to 1.

Cue the scramble for the best tutor. Whispers are passed in primary school playgrounds about those with mythical abilities to get children into the schools of their dreams. Horror stories abound of tutors charging £50 and more a session and requiring two sessions per week, or those who set hours and hours of homework.

In our case we settled for one who seemed to match our slacker attitude. We both agreed that while he would have to work, there was no point in pushing too hard. In fact when I flapped that he wasn't doing enough, she calmed me down and said too much work could be counter-productive. If only others had had such sage advice.


I heard of children sitting a paper a day for the whole summer before the exam, doing three hours of work a night, of holidays cancelled and siblings sent away to allow children to concentrate on prep.


But all of this was just the run up to the main event. The entrance exams which, where we live in North London, run from late July in Year 5 through to late September in Year 6. It's a horribly stressful time for both parents and children, many of whom have never experienced exam nerves before. We coped with a lot of pampering – I don't think my son has ever been so spoilt as in the days before each exam.

Exam day saw him sharing a stuffy hall with thousands of other hopefuls and me sitting in the car outside biting my nails to the quick. Fortunately ,his exam nerves were a lot better than mine.

Then it's time to settle in for the long wait (around a month) for results to come in. At this point I have another pearl of wisdom to share – STEP AWAY FROM THE FORUMS. Yes I do have to shout as they are addictive, but they will destroy your health. Everyone else seems better prepared, more knowledgeable and to have a cleverer child than your own, and when the results come in it's carnage.

When I opened my boy's results I was jubilant – he scored well enough to gain a place at three out of the four schools he sat for – but when I went onto the forum he instantly became a dunce. After all it's only parents whose children have aced the test who come back to tell everyone about it. In an instant my celebrations turned to anxiety, which is a real shame and something I advise you to avoid.

So finally to the marks. You don't just get a golden ticket printed with 'Hurrah, you're in' or a sad, grey rejection slip. Instead you get complicated metrics of what your child scored against what children who got in in the past scored.

Based on my rudimentary maths I am pretty sure that my son will get into his first choice school, but either way he will get in to one of his top three so I can relax - that is until GCSEs start.

Good luck to all those who start down this tricky road this year.

Selective school survival tips for parents:

• Visit all the schools you plan to apply for, it may be the top school in the country, but that doesn't mean it's right for you or your family.

• If there is one particular school you want, find out what type of test it sets and practise that type of test the most.

• Choose a tutor who suits your child and family, not necessarily the one everyone raves about.

• Try not to let your whole family life revolve around school entrance exams, it will make everyone's life a misery, as I know from bitter experience.

• Make sure your child knows that however they do in the tests, you will be proud of them

• Have a back up school that you are all happy with so there isn't too much pressure on them to pass.

• Don't stop your life until the exams are finished. Go on holiday, keep up extra-curricular activities – these help to keep your child happy and stress free in the run up to exams.

• Don't listen to or let yourself be derailed by advice from friends or forums. It doesn't matter what they are doing; have confidence in your approach as you know your child best.

• Whatever the outcome, make sure your child knows you are proud of the work they have done and all they have learned through the process.

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