Trials and tribulations of the 11+
By Leah White
14 Apr

We caught up with Kate, a mum of a teen and a tween living in Merton, to discuss the trials and tribulations of tackling the 11+ with her son, and how she’s now preparing to face it again with her second child. 

Whether you live in a part of the UK where the state school 11+ exam remains part of the transfer to secondary school process, or much more likely, parts of England where you must choose to sit the exam, children attending the 163 English grammar schools currently account for only 5% of secondary school aged pupils in a school setting (compared with 7% receiving private education)*.  Most areas operate an ‘opt-in’ approach to taking the 11+ exams, whereas a few such as Buckinghamshire uses an ‘opt-out’ approach. 

Generally, 11+ exams test across four main areas:  Verbal Reasoning (VR), Non-Verbal Reasoning (NVR), Maths and English.  There is still marked variation across schools/education authorities as to which of these subjects are tested at 11+. Nevertheless, the general trend in recent years is for 11+ exams to place increasing, if not exclusive, emphasis on core numeracy and literacy skills, mindful that these are less easy to ‘tutor to’ and theoretically make the exams more accessible to a broader range of children reflecting more closely what is taught in the state primary sector.

Having been educated in state grammar schools ourselves, a selective education for our children was always going to be a consideration, particularly as secondary state school provision in London can be so polarised (by postcode, if not by religious belief) in terms of educational outcomes for pupils, and that we’re ideologically opposed to the privilege of private education. More by accident than design, we ended up living in Merton, a part of South West London with very good transport links to surrounding areas, where neighbouring boroughs’ grammar school provision provide ‘super-selective’ alternatives to local comprehensives. 

We always considered our eldest to be ‘grammar school material,’ so started planning towards 11+ entry in late Year 4, encouraged in part by our child’s teacher indicating that 11+ exams were a viable option.  It is however to be noted that such an apparently pro-grammars piece of advice by a state school teacher isn’t necessarily the norm and certainly didn’t reflect the very ‘anti selective education’ stance of the Headteacher at the time.  No matter that we’d both been educated “in the system”, we were very much ‘newbies’ to the process this time around (it’s changed almost beyond recognition since our day), and were therefore on our own in terms of researching the schools, entry requirements and general prep for the 11+ exams.  The whole experience was all significantly more pressured and parentally driven because preparation took place entirely outside the school classroom, and because our child came to the concepts of Non-Verbal Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning a complete novice. 

We opted not to use a tutor because of a possibly na├»ve belief that our own academic attainment more than provided us with the skills to undertake the role ourselves.  In terms of garnering relevant information, from exam tuition tools to the entry process and beyond, we used the Admissions sections of the relevant schools’ websites (which should always be your first port of call), general parenting forums including Mumsnet, the websites of educational publications companies offering suitable revision resources, and more specifically school related forums (11+Forum is the ‘go-to’ online guide for all things 11+ related).   We did shamelessly tap the knowledge of school parents who’d successfully got their offspring through the 11+ exams to secure selective places before us, but not necessarily of friends whose own children were simultaneously riding the rigours, not least because of the subterfuge that seems to be rife amongst rivals, and makes the supposed ‘level playing field’ of 11+ exam entry anything but!

Preparation across all four examined question types for multiple 11+ exam entry didn’t start in earnest for our child until the spring term of Year 5.  Some parents would undoubtedly be aghast at such a seemingly lax (we would call it relaxed) approach, particularly as the tutoring industry and competitive parents’ ‘spin’ would suggest that a focused approach to guaranteed success comes with years not months of preparation. In terms of revision, we used as broad a range of online, YouTube and hardcopy publications, We started off with short, sharp bursts of testing done in an unpressured way (fifteen minutes before school), building gradually over the weeks and months, to a much more structured approach involving teaching to ‘gaps’ in understanding (which was most significant in Maths as some of the examined topics had not yet been studied at school) and to longer tests, culminating in doing an ‘under timed conditions’ 11+ practice paper a day (in two sessions if need-be to fit in with  R&R activities) during the summer holidays (a matter of weeks ahead of the actual 11+ exams).  

Running some type of swap system for hardcopy resources with other families going through the same prep process helped limit expenditure (albeit still vastly cheaper than using a tutor even short-term) but as the exams loomed ever larger in August and September, we broadened our brush and used more Common Entrance type papers and books too.  Once core understanding was no longer an issue, these additional resources helped our child with confidence and speed too.  As much part of the examination preparation journey as embedding knowledge is teaching accuracy and speed, as it is the latter two skills which will ultimately make or break the 11+  examination experience and outcome.  No matter that you have an exceptionally academically gifted child who completes work undertaken with 100% accuracy, if you’ve not helped them learn effective time-keeping strategies in exam situations they may lose out on securing a place to a ‘speedier’ examinee. 

Happily our child was successful in his 11+ exams. He took three specific to grammar schools (and is currently a pupil at one of them) and two for the ‘selective stream’ at nearby comprehensives. He passed all five.  

Now, we are embarking on 11+ exam prep with our second child, mindful that competition is significantly fiercer than when our eldest undertook the same process.  Thankfully we are ‘better-tooled’ this time around to make the journey, as there are not only significantly more resources (including new-to-the-market Galore Park 11+ exam publications) available to use. We also have the benefit of hindsight and the wisdom and ‘insider’ knowledge of an older child who can help support the younger one through the next six months, which should not only make them 11+ exams ready but also put them at an advantage in their KS2 SATs in summer 2017.



Tags: 11+, entrance, exams, Galore, Park

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