Independent Schools Admissions - Insider Information On Getting In!
'I always tell parents if they’re paying to coach 3-year-olds, they might as well burn £20 notes.’
Independent schools are free to choose who they admit and many are quite choosey.
In vastly oversubscribed areas such as London they may be very picky indeed; in less populated areas very good schools may be underwhelmed with applicants so ‘getting-in’ is easier.
Admission to independent schools
Wherever the school, the process can be lengthy and costly. Most will ask you to pay a non-refundable registration fee, ranging from £50 to £250. Closing dates for registration varies; some senior schools close their books a good 3 years or more prior to entry and it isn’t unknown for pre-preps to have waiting lists full of embryos.
Expect a child to be put through their paces (and for you to pay for the privilege) with many demanding a pre-assessment deposit of hundreds, even thousands, of pounds years in advance of actual entry. Selection will range from a gentle ‘play based’ assessment for the wee ones, with older ones subjected to full blown, computerised pre-pre-testing followed by interviews and assessments for those who cleared the first hurdle, then Common Entrance for any left in the race.
Any child with recognised special needs and entitlement to concessions such as extra-time should be granted these in pre-test situations. Sixth form entry is getting tougher too, with an abundance of A*s at GCSE demanded by many first division schools. Even those languishing at the foot of the league tables will demand good passes in the subjects to be studied. Regardless of age or stage, most will also want references from the child’s current school.
Don't choose in haste; even seemingly fairytale marriages can end in divorce, with you, or the school, pulling prematurely out of what you both thought would be a long and happy relationship. Researching a school as thoroughly as possible prior to entry, asking those searching questions and being honest in return, can prevent much heart-ache later.
Surviving the independent school interview
l will always be grateful to Gordon Brown, not because of his macro-management of the economy(!) but because his name was the correct answer to my son's 11-plus interview question,
'Who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer? It was the possession of this crucial piece of information that, in my view, tipped the balance in my son’s search for a secondary school place.’
The school interview is one which tends to send the applicant’s parents rather than the actual applicant into a spin. Parents feel considerably more responsible for their child’s social presentation than for his or her ability to do long division or conjugate French verbs. And, while a school may breezily describe the interview as ‘just a chance to get to know the child better’, this hardly overcomes concerns about sending young Daniel or Daniella into the lion’s den.
The London prep or senior day-school interview is perhaps the most straightforward. Over-subscribed at every point, the selective urban independent tends to concentrate on the academic. The majority usually only meet the child after a written exam (generally used as a first edit), and the interview itself will contain a significant component of maths, comprehension or reasoning. The aim here is to probe intellectual strengths and weaknesses in order to select from the central bulk of candidates or to pick scholarship material. Finding out a little about a child’s character is only of secondary importance.
Insider tips for securing entry
Even the most academic schools are not necessarily just looking for those guaranteed to deliver a stream of A*s. Jane Sullivan, for many years the headmistress of one of the country’s top selective prep schools, used her 7-plus interview as an opportunity to create as balanced a community as possible:
'I didn’t want all extroverts or all eggheads. Most children who sat our exam scored between 40 and 65 per cent in the written paper, so I was looking for an individual spark. At the age of 7, too, the interview is a crucial counter-balance to the exam. Those born between September and December always scored higher marks in the written paper. At interview we would go back to the list and bring in some younger children.'
Concerned parents often do their best to control the outcome of the interview but professional preparation is seen as a waste of time, both by those who interview and by teachers who send children to be interviewed.
'I always tell parents if they’re paying to coach 3-year-olds, they might as well burn £20 notes,’
says Jo Newman, headmistress of North London Collegiate Junior School, who has the daunting task of selecting 40 four-year-olds from 200 applicants in a two-tier interview.
‘The only useful preparation is to talk to them, play with them and read them stories.’
Further up the system, the advice is equally non-prescriptive. Jenny Aviss, head of Wetherby School in west London, does her best to relax the 7-year-olds she sends to prep-school interviews by providing them with as much factual information as she can beforehand.
‘I try to prepare them for what they’ll find. I usually describe the head – because I’m a smallish woman they might expect all heads to be like me – and I’ll tell them what the school looks like. Beyond that I just say, “Look them in the eye, answer carefully and be honest.” Children sell themselves.’
Some pre-preps and prep schools provide mock interviews, some will carefully guide children on what books or hobbies that might show to best advantage but most interviewers say they always know when a child has been coached and honesty – at least in theory – is the quality they’re looking for. One private tutor who prepares children for the 11-plus says,
‘I tell children to say what’s in their heart, not what their teacher told them to say.’
Those moving from state to private will undoubtedly have to take any preparation into their own hands. Some particularly pro-active parents of our acquaintance have used job manuals and professional coaching techniques to ready their child. One parent videoed his daughter to give her positive feedback on her strengths and weaknesses; another asked a friend unknown to the child to conduct a mock interview.
Personality, of course, will always be the most variable aspect of any interview and all interviewers have a personal bias. They may hate boastful children, or those who say their favourite leisure activity is computer games; they may prefer Arsenal fans to Tottenham supporters but some schools do make a strenuous attempt to counteract the sense of one adult sitting in judgement on one child. City of London School, for example, sees candidates individually before sending them off to a lesson where they can be observed by another teacher as they work in a group. At Rugby, every child is interviewed by at least two people.
Interviewers and interviewees
The best interviewers can and do overcome the limitations both of the written examination and of the child.
‘Children, even very shy ones, like to talk about themselves, their friends, their families and their pets. I’d get them to describe what they did on Sunday or I'd turn my back and ask them to describe something in the room,’
says Jane Sullivan.
‘Sometimes I’d even get a child to sing or dance. I was looking for sparkly eyes and interest. If child just sat there like a pudding you usually didn’t take them.’
Some schools get over the ‘what to talk about’ dilemma by asking children to bring along a favourite object. Rugby sensibly provides a questionnaire about hobbies and interests to fill in in advance, which not only provides a talking point, but also allows parents to feel they’ve done what they can. If, however, the child pitches up with a copy of Proust or boasts a collection of Roman ceramics, parents shouldn’t be surprised if the interviewer is somewhat sceptical.
Children themselves tend to be annoyingly honest. The headmaster of one highly selective north London school dealing with 7-year-old entrants always used to ask what the Roman numerals on his clock stood for. One carefully prepared child answered correctly and then added, ‘My parents told me you were going to ask that.’
Although a number of leading boarding schools still rely solely on the prep-school report and Common Entrance papers, most now feel that the interview can identify serious pastoral concerns.
‘We sometimes discover that a child really doesn’t want to come to boarding school,’
says Hilary Morrish, former registrar of Rugby.
‘The interview is also very helpful in establishing the academic level the prep school is working at. We ask children to bring in their exercise books. Some London prep schools are so geared up at that point that all the child is doing is practice papers. Country prep schools tend to be more relaxed.’
Although most heads are honest in their report about a child – after all, their reputation depends on it – the interview can also benefit them. Hilary Morrish says,
‘Occasionally, a prep-school head knows perfectly well that a child is not suited to our school, but the parents just won’t listen; coming from us it doesn’t sour the relationship with the school.’
Boarding - the extra selection
Boarding schools, of course, tend to have another layer to their selection process and interview when they match boys and girls to an appropriate house. Here the parent, even more than the child, can be in the spotlight.
Dr Andrew Gailey, housemaster of Manor House, Prince William’s house at Eton, always tries to strike a balance of the sporty and industrious, the musical and the generally decent in his annual selection of ten boys but, for him, the parental part of the equation plays an even greater role.
‘The boy is going to change but you have shared management of the child’s adolescence with the parents and you have to have some common bond for that to work.’
That’s a common theme for those interviews where parents appear – notably in London pre-preps. Most of the time the school is really interviewing you and it’s you who need the preparation while your child can happily be itself. A balance between steady, respectful (schools are ever keen to avoid the parent from hell) and interesting (but nor do they like dull ones) is best.
However anxiety-making interviews are, be wary of a school that doesn’t at least wish to meet your child. An interview can fire a prospective candidate’s enthusiasm for a school, make teachers more committed to teaching the child and give parents a clearer notion of the school’s pastoral style.
Preparation, practice and revision
Worried about the entrance exams your child has to sit? It's important to do some preparation; how much and for how long depends on: your child, the school they are hoping to attend and the type of exams or assessment they will be expected to undertake.
Scholarship potential? If you think your child has scholarship potential do raise this with both their current and future school. Some schools produce their own scholarship papers, others use the Common Academic Scholarship. These papers really do stretch the brightest and best, arguably to a depth and level beyond GCSE. A scholarship used to be a passport to a reduction in fees. Today any reduction is usually restricted to 10% of fees, though bursaries are usually available to those in financial need, subject to means testing.
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