So you’ve done your homework - been to the open days, studied the prospectuses, balanced larger playing fields against smaller classes, shorter journeys against longer bills. And now you’re ready to prepare your child.
Your mental approach
The first thing to recognise is that this - if your child is at junior school age or older – will mean an entrance examination. While the mere thought might make you go cold, the right approach and preparation means the process can be successful, even enjoyable, and one in which you have a surprising amount of control.
Many parents feel that the moment they embark on the process of applying to a selective school, they are entirely in the hands of an unfriendly system that is highly unlikely to spot the merits - however obvious - of their offspring . The more desperate you are to get your child into this or that school, the more dark and forbidding its front door appears! It may be helpful to establish at the outset that the right school for your child will, more than likely, happily offer him or her a place and if it doesn't then it was probably not the right school.
However, it is true that most good schools are heavily oversubscribed and inevitably lots of deserving candidates don't get in. It is, therefore, essential that you have a fallback school - ideally more than one - a school you like and your child likes and one to which you would be perfectly happy to send her - even if it is not your first choice.
Perhaps the most important thing at this stage is your child's - and your own - approach to these examinations. It cannot be stated too strongly that no child should ever be left with a sense of having failed. This can do severe damage which will not just go away but be with him or her for the rest of their lives. The business of applying to this or that school should be a 'let's give it a go' venture, not a matter of life, death, family honour, tradition, pride or, above all, fear of letting one's parents down. There is never only one possible school - as a great many families who, every year feel that their world has collapsed at the arrival of the 'wrong letter', discover.
What to expect
Your first task is to register your child with the schools of your choice, which may or may not involve a financial outlay – both a registration fee and a deposit later on to secure your place. Always make sure you understand what the agreement involves and under what circumstances you get your money back.
These days, especially in London, many schools have organised themselves into consortia. This is so that your child doesn't have to sit 10 examinations if you have put her in for 10 schools. Your first choice school will mark the examination and share the results with the others. Scholarships are different. The individual schools may well want to set their own scholarship papers. You will need to research this if you are considering putting your son or daughter in for a scholarship and the school will happily send you details.
But, scholarship candidate or not, you will definitely face - the entrance exam! Most schools examine in the same ways - testing English, maths and verbal or, sometimes, non-verbal reasoning - at every entry stage except the nursery and pre-prep. Common Entrance - which, of course, many boys - and some girls - sit at preparatory schools is a more complex affair. It happens later - at 12 for entry at 13 - and involves examination papers in just about all the curriculum subjects. We can assume that, if your child is sitting these examinations, the preparatory school concerned will have explained the process and you will be clued up about it. Entry at Sixth form level will probably depend on a combination of GCSE results, a school report and interview.
Getting an assessment
However bright your child, he or she will need some practice in managing the examinations. It is, in fact, often the brightest children who are most disadvantaged if they have had no practice prior to the exams. These children often write long, wonderful stories if left to themselves but are totally thrown when given half an hour to produce a finished piece. However good at maths these children may be, it may well be the case that the pace in their classroom has simply not allowed them to cover some of the skills and techniques that the senior school will expect them to understand.
Ideally the coaching will be done by an experienced teacher at year 6 level in an academically selective junior school - someone who knows exactly what the senior school is looking for. It may well be that this is someone who also coaches local children for the exams at the school of your choice. Frequently, this is a retired specialist at this level who should be prepared to see your child once, try out her English and her maths and give you an honest appraisal of her general aptitude, some idea of her chances of success and what it will take to prepare her thoroughly. You must not expect such a teacher to make promises! An honest assessment is a useful tool and can save much heartache and disappointment later on.
An experienced teacher will have heaps of past papers, have all the techniques at her command and will make your child feel confident quickly. Note, however, that you may need to find separate teachers for English and maths.
Finding a tutor
The best way is word of mouth. Ask around among parents and read our articles on how to find the right tutor. It may be that your child’s school can recommend teachers or it may be worth asking the school you hope she will go to, though it is not unheard of for this to be remembered and held against a candidate if she is borderline! There is a tendency for these schools to tell you that no coaching is necessary, but this ignores the disadvantage that state school children are under.
Ideally you should contact the teacher a year or so before the examination and book a place. The best teachers usually have a waiting list.
In the meantime, there are things you can do at home. Ideally, your child should be reading enthusiastically but, in any case, it is never too late to read to her and to share reading. There are also books to help bring your child up to scratch. Maths, too, can be fun and there are books of maths puzzles and problems readily available.
If the school will be testing verbal reasoning (not all do – check first), it is vital that your child is familiar with the format of these papers as well. These, too, are freely available at good newsagents and some bookshops although note that some will be more suitable than others for the particular exam that your child faces: - ask around.
Mercifully, it is now accepted and understood that many of the brightest individuals have problems such as dyslexia which may mask their true abilities. If your child has an SEN, discuss it with her tutor and alert your first choice school before the exam. That way, when they are assessing the papers and determining who to recall for interview, they will be apprised of the special circumstances.
It is also wise to have her assessed by a specialist, ideally much earlier in her school career than year 6. There are various ways of doing this. The first thing is to express your concern to her class teacher. The teacher should, whether she thinks you have a point or not, refer her to the school's SENCo. You have the right to do this yourself if the teacher fails to do so. From then on there is an established Code of Practice which should, eventually, result in Jessica being given extra help in school. However, the provision for this varies hugely from borough to borough and school to school. Your guide through this will be your local Parent Partnership - an invaluable national organisation. Your local authority will be able to give you their contact details.
If you decide you cannot wait for this system to work - it can take the best part of a school year in worst cases - you could get Jessica assessed by a recognised SEN teacher or educational psychologist, although be warned this can be expensive.
Either way, you should end up with an assessment or a report you can copy and send to the senior school of your choice before the exam.
Some schools interview all their candidates and even parents too. Others interview only scholarship candidates. Most interview those who have passed a minimum standard in the exams. Interviews may be with the headteacher or with other senior teachers. There may well be further tests done at the interview. For example, if your child did well in her English paper but less well in maths, she may well be taken off by the maths department and given some additional exercises. This should not be a cause for alarm but it is as well to be prepared for the possibility.
While, obviously, it is a good idea to be able to talk about a book you have read recently and know well enough to discuss, you cannot prepare for interviews. In fact, it is unwise to try. Children who have been drilled beforehand usually sit tongue-tied trying to remember what was practised at home, what she said in the practice, what Daddy told her to say. Interviewers will look for spontaneity, friendliness, a willingness to think, to join in and to listen. This is especially important if your child is interviewed in a group with maybe two or three other candidates. Alternatively, she may be seen on her own and, again, the interviewer will look for a relaxed, open approach, not a prepared speech.
Finally there is the two or three week wait before the letter comes. It is not always the best idea to stop the coaching at this time. For example, if the teacher has been working with your child on matters other than preparation for the exams, it may be worth considering continuing lessons, if the teacher is prepared to do so. This is especially so if your child has deficiencies in maths or written work. She can, perhaps, do project work which the senior school will expect her to have an idea of. In any case, a surprisingly large number of children actually enjoy the lessons.
Do you want help from The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants?
Our expert education consultants can provide your family with one-to-one help on all of the issues raised in this article and many more. We regularly help parents understand the particulars of UK independent schools and assist them in mapping out potential educational pathways for their children.