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Article published 13th January 2014

It’s the time of year when parents are on tenterhooks, waiting to hear if their children have passed the 11 plus and clinched a prized place at a selective secondary school.

The 11 plus is still used in both the state and independent sectors. While much of the country abolished the 11 plus several decades ago a few local authorities – including Buckinghamshire, Kent, Birmingham, North Yorkshire and some London boroughs – still use it for their (highly competitive) grammar school entry.

Grammar schools

England’s 164 selective grammar schools are more over-subscribed than ever before, with up to 13 applicants for every place. But 11 plus exams vary hugely. Some local authorities test applicants’ English and maths while others assess verbal reasoning (VR) and non-verbal reasoning (NVR). Many heads believe the latter are better indicators of raw intelligence than English and maths and say VR and NVR can’t really be coached.

So if your child is taking the 11 plus this year, how can you prepare them?

Some parents seek out the best tutors they can find but others – usually the more laidback ones – leave it to fate, figuring that if children have to be tutored to pass the exam the school might not be right for them. As the mother of one recent 11 plus candidate told us: ‘Parents need to be realistic. Children will learn best if they are happy. If they have been crammed and only just pass the 11 plus will they really be able to cope with the academic pressure of a selective school? Many children who find they have scraped in may always be at the bottom of the class and unhappy. Is it not better to be a bright star in a less academic school?’

Finding the best tutor

When it comes to finding the best tutors in your area, you can either go to a tutor agency or seek word of mouth recommendations.

However, one Good Schools Guide editor reckons that the most effective method is to ask parents whose children passed the 11 plus a couple of years back. She told us: ‘Competition is so intense that many parents with children the same age as yours won’t share the details of their tutor or will just lie and say they’re not even considering relying on anything bar their child’s natural brilliance.’

Helping your child

  • Ask teachers about your child’s 11 plus chances. They will be able to give advice on your child’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Find out the entrance procedures for the schools you have in mind, the timetable for applications and tests, any fees required and the subjects your child will be tested on.
  • Check what your child will be expected to know for the tests.
  • Get hold of some past papers. These can often be found on school websites, although not all schools provide them.
  • Look at 11 plus study guides. There are a plethora of books and practice papers available at WH Smith and on Amazon.
  • Start working with your child early enough (at least six months ahead of the exam). Taking a look at his or her numeracy skills and finding them wobbly midway through the autumn term of year 6 might not leave enough time to prepare.
  • Make a revision plan with short and long-term goals – and stick to it.
  • Set reasonable targets. Your child already does a day’s work at school and may have homework too, so don’t overdo it.
  • Do some interview practice. Don’t over-prepare your child but encourage him or her to shake the interviewer’s hand and look them in the eye. Encourage them to have a book they have read recently and can talk about, an idea of what’s in the news and a question to ask about the school. Above all, remind your child to try and enjoy the interview.
  • Don’t make the 11 plus exam the be all and end all. Rather than telling your child ‘you’ve got to get into this school,’ say something like ‘let’s have a go at it.’ As an experienced Good Schools Guide writer told us: ‘Don’t convey any anxiety you have to your child. There are other lovely schools.’
  • Make sure your child eats well, sleeps well and gets lots of fresh air, exercise and time to relax and play.
  • Ensure your child has an early night and healthy breakfast before the exam.
  • Afterwards, don’t do a lengthy debrief – and don’t comment on any mistakes your child might have made. If they are upset or worried, reassure them that they have done their best.


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