Advice from those who have just emerged on the other side
by VICTORIA EVANS
If you’ve decided to go private for secondary school, by the time your child reaches Year 5 you’ll be contemplating the start line of the 11+ marathon. Having just been through the process myself, I decided that those Year 5 parents, as well as those closing in on application deadlines in November, might want to hear what it was REALLY like, straight from the horse’s mouth. I’ve spoken to parents to gather their perspective on the process, and how they think it could be improved, in addition to bleeding them dry of proper, useful advice and the lowdown on some of London’s most sought-after educational establishments. I think it’s worth noting that the parents I spoke to have children in a range of schools: Putney High, Harrodian, Latymer Upper, Francis Holland, Arts Ed, Ibstock Place and Kew House. So, you will be getting a decent overview.
General feedback from the parents I spoke to was that the process is ‘pretty awful’, ‘tough on parents and children’, ‘frustrating’ and ‘a bit like childbirth – you eventually forget the worst bits!’ One parent told me that their new head teacher recently congratulated the parents and pupils for having made it through the 11+ process in West London, begging the question of whether it is better dealt with out of town (more on that in our Schools Out piece, p29).
One thing is certain, it’s a competitive business and applying for only one school would be foolhardy. Spreading your bets and applying for eight schools is equally daft. It just adds stress and is exhausting for your child (and really, are there eight schools you really love?). Be grown up and make some decisions! The schools don’t exactly discourage applications; as one parent put it, ‘they can make serious money from the registrations, so they’re not going to turn people away!’ Emmanuel School in Clapham is the only one we know of that caps applications each year. Beware, the cut-off is getting earlier and earlier. Blink, and you’ll miss it. And don’t rely on other parents to let you know – its every man and woman for themselves in this game.
Part of the process involves creating a shortlist. Be prepared for some schools to host open evenings that are like ‘bun-fights’, where numbers aren’t controlled, resulting in some parents not being able to get a good feel for the school. Others are ticketed, so you need to book well in advance or you won’t get a look-in. Try to get to as many open days and evenings as you can, even though it becomes a drag in the final stages. It will give you the opportunity to form a better opinion about what is important to you: single-sex, city, out of town, sporty, musical, all-rounder, religious.
Once the choices are made, be prepared for the interview. Some schools only interview candidates that reach a certain exam standard, but most will interview all pupils who apply, sometimes before the exam. Recent questions included:
- Tell me how a Fitbit works?
- Describe this object – to this day, I still dont know what it was my daughter was asked to describe.
- What is time?
- Rank the schools you have applied to in order from favourite to least favourite (yes, really, a child was asked to do this).
- What was the greatest invention of the 20th century?
- Who do you think should be on the new £10 note and why?
- If you could be anyone for 24 hours, who would you choose & what would you do?
So, now you’ve prepped the questions, you’re ready, right? Wrong. You’ve got the environment to contend with. Some schools rip your loved ones from you at some distance from the exam centre, others provide a welcoming talk, tea and biscuits while you wait. Some interviews are one-on-one with senior management, others are in groups (when, inevitably, one over-confident chatterbox talks over everyone else), and often there will be many interviews taking place in one room at the same time. And then there’s the speed-dating type of interview. Oh yes, not just something for adults. The most important tip here is for you to give your child the confidence they need to be themselves. We have to trust that these schools know what they’re looking for and which child will fit in.
HOW COULD IT BE IMPROVED?
This is a difficult one. Some of the best schools in the country happen to be within a two-mile radius of West London, so it naturally follows that it’s competitive. We all go into this with our eyes open – it’s a selective approach to education, so how is it best to select? Kew House is regarded very positively by local parents as it puts a lot of emphasis on the interview with the headmaster (who, by the way, puts nervous children at ease in seconds). The interviews are also all finished by the end of the Autumn term, meaning it’s one less thing to worry about in January.
A parent I spoke to suggested that there should be a limit to the number of schools that parents apply to. She said: ‘I think this would mean people categorised their choices better – the more academic kids would apply for the more academic schools, with maybe one fall-back, the less academic kids would apply for the middle/lower ranked (academia-wise) schools, with maybe one hopeful. This would stop the more academic kids being offered loads of places in schools they are unlikely to accept, therefore stopping so many kids having to go through the wait-listing process. It would also make the numbers applying to the schools more realistic.’ Another idea was to put co-ed schools together, like the North London Girls’ School Consortium. So, ‘one maths and English paper is taken by each child, and these papers are considered by all schools. The mixed schools, such as Ibstock, Harrodian, Kew, Radnor House & St Benedicts, could form a West London Consortium. If they want to do their own verbal/non-verbal tests, then they can, but the main exams would be cut down considerably.’
OUR PARENTS SAY…
- Get a tutor.
- Don’t get a tutor. The debate will go on.
- Get a folder & get organised! Buy stamps and envelopes now. Few of the schools use online applications. You’ll need photocopies of your child’s passport & passport-sized photos of him/her. The admin around applying and each exam day (whether your child needs to wear a certain sticker, take a card with them, etc) is surprisingly full-on, but you need to be calm and in-control so they don’t feel your stress as well!
- Focus on your child and what they need from a secondary school, not what others think or which are the most popular schools of the moment.
- Some people go completely bonkers through the process … ignore them.
- When you look around a school, try and look for the reason you might not want your child to go there – these schools are all excellent!
- Try to get to as many open days and evenings as you can, even though it becomes a drag in the final stages. You will form a better opinion about what is important to you: single-sex, distance from home, journey to school, sporty, musical, all-rounder, religious.
- Many schools host more than one open day at different times of year. When trying to narrow things down, going to a second open day is a good way to help finalise a view. You may well see a school in a very different light the second time around, especially if you only saw it once, right at the beginning of the process.
- Believe in your own judgement regarding your child’s potential, and be realistic about where they will get in. There’s no point putting them through the stress of a highly academic school just because you really want them to go there, when the reality is that they will probably achieve more in the long term if they went to a school that was more academically appropriate for them.
- Listen to your child – having gone through this process twice now, both my children have been very clear about which school is their favourite, even if it may not have been my first choice. They are the ones who have to spend the next five to seven years at that school, so it’s better they make the decision with you, rather than you deciding for them.
- Don’t cross-examine your child after each exam. Chances are, they will have made some classic errors and it’s very difficult to pretend not to care! Best not to know.
- Be prepared for rejection. Getting offers from all their schools is for the very few. Knowing how to be positive is an important skill here.
- If you’re on a wait-list, call the school immediately and express your 100% desire to be part of their intake in the Autumn. One headmaster joked that this is the time to send flowers and chocolates to the registrar concerned. Joking aside, begging letters, expensive gifts and stalking have been known.
- Alternatively, take the view that if the school doesn’t want your child, you don’t want them to go there!
- Relax, do not stress. It does work itself out in the end. Easier said than done. Take it from one who knows!
With thanks to Cherry Wood, Claire Rimmer, Sharon Hart, Maria Viader, David Ewen and Sarah Norman-Taylor.