By Zac Newman, MTA
As summer approaches, many will be mindful of both last year’s, and looming, 11+ examinations; the formidable academic fortress guarding admission to various secondary schools. Many pupils will have been preparing for over a year, or even longer. There are currently over 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 considerable number of private schools that use their own 11+ exams as an entry requirement. 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, for example, proudly states on its website that it receives more than 2000 applications for just 93 places. Whether you are frantically preparing students for entry in 2018, or are more leisurely gearing up for exams further off, here’s a quick guide on what to expect and how best to prepare, while keeping anxiety at bay.
The 11+ (usually) comprises of tests in English, Mathematics, Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning. The exact concoction, format and content of tests varies, with different schools adopting different procedures. State selective exams are often, though not always, written in a multiple-choice format (partly to make marking easier), whilst 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 in full sentences. There are always exceptions, however. For example, last year Immanuel College, a North London private school, switched their exam providers to GL Assessment who favour the multiple-choice method.
It is, therefore, of vital importance to be aware of the different exam papers your preferred school(s) sets. School websites contain lots of valuable information including access to useful past papers. It would also be helpful to chart up the critical dates on your calendar. Children applying for state selective schools ordinarily sit these exams in the September of Year 6. Private school examinations, by contrast, most-often take place in the January of Year 6, a full term later (although Belmont School’s entrance examinations are in November). Successful candidates are commonly interviewed shortly thereafter.
Whilst interviews may sound daunting to a child of ten or eleven, 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 student’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 skills such as shaking hands, making eye contact whilst doing so, and not sitting until being invited to do so, go a long way.
Most tutors will agree that preparation for the 11+ is essential (although some schools try to argue that you can’t prepare for their tests). It’s important to start early, ideally one to two years in advance. Some parents will choose one-to-one tuition whilst others will opt for group sessions. It’s also advisable for parents and students to attend school open days so they all know 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 their parents. Focused and consistent revision over the holidays keeps up the momentum and ensures students don’t forget vital topics and exam techniques. It’s worth doing practice papers under timed conditions so pupils get a sense of what to expect on the day.
Having said all that, bear in mind that kids need time to chill out and enjoy free time. Relaxation time is vital, otherwise they may come to resent sitting the 11+ exams or, worse, “burn out” before they even get to the test! Encourage parents to try not to convey their own fears and concerns to their children. Gentle encouragement, and frequent praise will help boost your students’ confidence 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, whilst an early night before exams almost goes without saying.
Above all, please encourage parents to keep things in perspective. As much as they want the best academically for their progenies, success and achievement should not come at the detriment of their children’s health and well-being. Passing 11+ exams are not the be all and end all. Assuring their offspring that they are proud of them, no matter what, is the most effective way to foster their children’s overall long term health and happiness.
Zac Newman is the Founder and Director of Newman Tuition (www.newmantuition.co.uk), a network of professional tutors, recommended by The Good Schools Guide. He is a qualified teacher with an academic background in Psychotherapy and Counselling.